February 16, 2022

Guest blog by Deanna Lewis

Winter weather can be challenging for anyone but imagine how it affects a person who is blind or visually impaired and their ability to safely navigate their environment. Many of the normal markers we use to help us orient ourselves and travel safely are harder to find and often buried beneath several inches of snow. Whether a person travels with a white cane or a guide dog, these unfavorable weather conditions can make getting from place to place much more difficult. Here are some tips that may help you navigate in the winter as you trudge through the snow, ice and slush.

With the cold weather, we tend to dress in layers of clothing and bundle up. However, those heavy coats with hoods, hats, earmuffs, gloves and boots may not be the best. When you wear something that covers your ears, you may not be able to hear the traffic and your surroundings as well. Snow and ice can affect the sounds around you, too. Sometimes it can get very quiet just after a snowstorm because no one is out and about. Other times, when the snow is starting to melt, cars are driving through slushy puddles and sounds can be amplified.

If you have usable vision, wearing a hood may block some of your peripheral (side) vision. Also, the brightness of the snow on a sunny day can be extremely blinding and uncomfortable. It’s important to consider the visibility concerns of drivers. Wearing reflective vests and clothing, can help drivers see you more clearly. Gloves and mittens can impede your sense of touch and become too bulky and bothersome.

Heavy snow usually means that snowplows will clear the streets, but pile snow along the sidewalk edges. It is hard to distinguish the curb edge from the street and to navigate around the piles of snow and slush. It is often useful to use a white cane to help identify familiar landmarks, curb edges, grass, and judge the height of snowbanks. That being said, doing this is still very tricky and it can be hard to distinguish what is what.

The sidewalks you travel frequently can be unrecognizable. Many residents do not shovel their sidewalks. As people walk over un-shoveled sidewalks the snow becomes slushy and can freeze overnight causing it to become very slick. YakTrax can help with walking on snow and ice. They are special coils that easily slide over your shoes and grip ice helping to provide traction and stability.

Not only is walking to your destination difficult, but you should consider other obstacles. For instance, if it is bitterly cold, standing at a bus stop for more than a few minutes may be unbearable. If the weather conditions are severe, it may be necessary to use another mode of transportation to reach your destination safely. Always allow for extra time in case you encounter obstacles along your path.

As a guide dog user, I find that traveling in the winter with a guide dog is easier; I feel more secure in navigating safely with my guide dog alongside me. Winter weather is difficult to navigate regardless of whether you use a guide dog or a mobility cane. However, there are some advantages and disadvantages to both modes.

Utilizing a guide dog can make it easier to locate curbs, stairs, piles of snow, etc. Even with mountains of snow at every corner, my guide dog knows where our usual landmarks are and will guide me to them. I usually carry my white cane with me, in case I have trouble finding and judging obstacles. If my dog stops, I can probe the area with my cane to see why he has stopped and I can help us determine the best way to navigate around things blocking our path.

Most dogs tend to enjoy snow, and love to play in it. A happy dog may walk at a pace that is faster than usual, because they are excited about the snow. If a dog’s pace is too fast, their handler can help slow them down. Some dogs are extra cautious and may walk at a slower pace, paying extra attention to obstacles and slick spots. A guide dog also has to consider overhead obstacles. Snow and ice can weigh down tree branches; creating overhead obstacles and fallen limbs and branches might be blocking the walking path.

Another thing a guide dog user must consider is how the weather will affect their dog. If the weather is below freezing, you may want to use a fleece jacket underneath the dog’s harness. It’s also important to protect the dog’s feet from the harsh chemicals used in salt. Salt can get stuck in the dog’s paws and can cause pain and limping. Some dogs are alright with just wiping their paws off once you’ve reached your destination. Great options for dogs with more sensitive feet are hard-soled dog booties and/or rubbing wax on their paws to provide an extra barrier and protection.

Whether you are a guide dog user, a white cane user or both, winter weather means you should take extra time and precaution to get to your destination safely.

If you have questions about resources for those who are blind and visually impaired, contact Clovernook Center for more information.

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