Sarah Lehr, Lansing State Journal Published Feb. 18, 2020

Snowy winters are a given in Holland, Michigan, where Lucia Rios lives.

Unfortunately for Rios, shoddy snowplowing is another near certainty.

“It’s a problem every time it snows,” Rios said. “That’s how often it is.”

It’s not a mere annoyance for Rios, who uses a wheelchair.

If snow isn’t cleared from sidewalks or accessible parking spaces, Rios can’t go to the grocery store or the pharmacy. She can’t visit friends and family. It could impede her ability to drive for her job as a resource navigator at The Source, a nonprofit that focuses on employee retention and training.

Rios has seen plows clear the rest of parking lot but push all the snow into an accessible parking space. That’s a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, said Samuel Bagenstos, a law professor at the University of Michigan.

“It’s useless to have accessible parking spaces if they’re not actually available to the people who need them,” said Bagenstos, who worked for the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and helped develop updates to the ADA in 2010. “What plowing over these spaces means is that, if you’re disabled, you can’t get to these really basic facilities in our community. In our culture and in our society you can’t get almost anywhere if you can’t drive there.”

Rios uses her phone to snap pictures of the snowy obstacles she encounters on a weekly basis. About a year ago, she went to Grand Rapids to meet a friend for a beer.

Parking was across the street from the brewery, but the sidewalk leading from the parking lot to the business was packed with snow. Rios had to roll through the street instead, leaving her vulnerable to drivers who might not notice her at her wheelchair’s lower height.

Sometimes Rios sees instances where the main part of a parking space is clear, but snow is left in the adjacent striped area that is designated to make room for a wheelchair lift.

In other instances, she sees snow pushed to the top of an accessible space, forcing people to climb over snow to get to the curb or to travel through the street, closer to speeding traffic.

That was the case earlier this month in downtown Lansing when a Lansing State Journal reporter saw snow pushed to the front of accessible street parking spaces.

“Coordination between street, sidewalk and parking lot clearing activities during a snow event can be difficult and can result in snow being pushed in an area unintended,” Lansing spokeswoman Valerie Marchand said in a statement.

Lansing’s Parking Services Office works with Downtown Lansing, Inc. to plow downtown spaces. City officials ask people to report any problems by calling  517-483-4455.

“When these issues are identified, either city staff address the issue and clear the snow or contact the responsible party and request appropriate action,” Marchand added. “Prior to and after snow removal seasons, the City meets with snow removal service companies to go over lessons learned in an effort to limit issues.”

Any place open to the public, such as a restaurant, gym or government building, must comply with the ADA and Michigan’s Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act, said Kimberly Woolridge, director of ADA compliance for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.

That means snow must be cleared from accessible parking spaces and from wheelchair ramps in a reasonable amount of time.

“What counts as reasonable?” Woolridge said. “Courts differ, but I would think 24 hours is fair.”

Municipalities and businesses often hire outside snow plowing companies, but generally the liability for noncompliance lies with the owner of the parking space rather than the contractor, Wooldridge said.

“A big misconception is that accessible parking is a privilege,” said Kyle Williams, an attorney with Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service,  a nonprofit that advocates for people with disabilities. “It’s not. It’s a right guaranteed under the ADA.”

Those misconceptions keep people who use mobility aids, like wheelchairs, walkers, crutches or leg braces, from completing their daily business. It’s a problem that affects the elderly disproportionately.

Lansing resident Gayle Mutz uses an accessible parking space and struggles when snow and slush is not cleared from her path.

“They don’t salt it enough,” she said while running errands on a Saturday afternoon at the Frandor Shopping Center in Lansing. “It’s kind of difficult to maneuver.”

Corr Commercial Real Estate, which oversees the Frandor parking lot, did not respond to a request for comment.

Because Kellie Blackwell, a community relations specialist with Disability Network Capital Area, does not drive, parking spaces are a non-issue for her. Still, Blackwell uses a cane due to a visual impairment. It’s a safety risk if a sidewalk isn’t cleared when she expects it to be.

Blackwell urges business and home owners to be considerate when clearing sidewalks. In particular, people should clear curb cuts, the sloping areas that connect streets to sidewalks.

Disability Network Capital Area organizes snow removal services for people with disabilities who cannot shovel themselves. Under a Lansing ordinance sidewalks must be shoveled within 24 hours of snowfall.

When people encounter accessibility violations at business, advocates suggest they complain directly to the owner or manager.

“Every business, every government knows they have to do some snow removal,” Bagenstos said. “You have to treat disabled people as customers and citizens just as you would anyone else.”

ADA violations may be reported to the Michigan Department of Civil Rights or to the U.S. Department of Justice. In some cases, impeded parking could result in a lawsuit. Or the DOJ could take up the issue, which often leads to a settlement.

The federal Fair Housing Act can also address impeded parking spaces in places like apartment complexes, Williams said.

Last winter, East Lansing City Council Member Mark Meadows, the city’s mayor at the time, posted a photo to Facebook, calling out a local business with snow piled in an accessible parking space.

Shortly afterward, a constituent sent Meadows a picture of the same problem in a city-owned parking lot.

Meadows notified East Lansing’s city manager of the issue. Meadows also shared a picture of the space to his Facebook profile along with the constituent’s advice: “Grab a shovel, Mr. Mayor!”

Photographer Matthew Dae Smith contributed to this report. Contact Sarah Lehr at (517) 377-1056 or slehr@lsj.com. Follow her on Twitter @SarahGLehr.