Editorial Comment

S’now Negligence


Services for the handicapped are becoming more prevalent everywhere in our world. Integration of the disabled into society is a priority for most civilized populations. We have closed captioning of television and special phones for the hearing impaired, and for those visually-challenged, we have pedestrian lights that beep for the blind, as well as Braille on automated banking machine keys, even the ones in a drive-through. In Alberta, we have even enacted legislation to ensure businesses and other public places are all wheelchair accessible with ramps instead of stairs to allow for with mobility issues. 
All these efforts are laudable  to keep disabled people involved in the mainstream but sadly, in the case of accessibility for seniors and other mobility-challenged folks (and the odds are we, will all fall into that category sometime in our life) we fail them every winter. The problem is that some people don’t shovel their sidewalks. Those with physical challenges can’t use the ramp in front of a business if they can’t get to it from their house. Like the weakest link in a chain, it only takes one residence not shoveling to make a sidewalk impassable for a wheelchair pilot, walker warrior or cane jockey.
Why people don’t feel obliged to keep their walk clear is a mystery, considering it is a legal duty in most municipalities. It is also a good way to reduce risk exposure should someone slip on your sidewalk. Shoveling in a timely fashion demonstrates due diligence which will usually set aside any negligence charges. Mostly, however, people should shovel their walk so everyone can use it, rather than just the able-bodied. It is simply the right thing to do.
Part of the issue is that, in many municipalities, although the responsibility of keeping your sidewalk free of snow is contained in the bylaws, often, these bylaws are not enforced, unless there is a complaint received. In other words, law enforcement officials will look the other way when they see an infraction unless one neighbor rats out another. What is the purpose of this unfair and divisive application of a reasonable law? (Thank heavens most other laws, such as murder, aren’t based on a complaint having to be filed!) Since few people want to get their neighbors in trouble or perhaps even fear reprisals from those on their street, few complaints are received and sidewalks remains un-navigable for the lame.
Of course, there are the excuses; “I don’t have time.”, “I don’t use my sidewalk in winter.”, “I’m disabled, too.” It doesn’t matter what the excuses are, however, the bottom line is that, as a property owner, you have a personal responsibility to keep your sidewalk free of snow and ice. If you have to hire someone to do it, so be it. You can’t plead poverty for this any more than you can use it as an argument for not paying your taxes. 
Because Alberta legislation spells out the importance of providing reasonable access to the urban environment for all, it seems municipalities that do not enforce winter sidewalk maintenance are in transgression of the law. It states “All persons are entitled to equal access to the basic rights and fundamental freedoms that most people take for granted, e.g. health care, employment, education, participation in cultural activities.” Obviously, if a person can’t walk safely to where the healthcare, employment, education and cultural events are, they are being excluded.
Municipalities therefore have two choices. The easiest answer would be to “educate” residents first, through an awareness campaign and then with aggressive enforcement, to get them to do their civic duty and clear their snowy sidewalks. Although this would likely be unpopular, especially at the outset, the initiative would just be forcing the lazy and the thoughtless to do what they should have been doing all along, anyway. Either that, or communities can make sidewalk clearing a municipal responsibility with the required manpower and machinery costs reflected in their taxes. In a town with 1000 taxable residential properties, for example, given an estimated budget of $100,000, that would mean a tax-hit of $100 per house. No doubt some may think that worth it, assuming the estimate is accurate, whereas others would certainly complain they would rather do it themselves than pay someone else. Unfortunately, it would probably have to be an “all or none” proposition to make it cost effective.
It would be much simpler, of course, for people to realize their personal responsibilities to their neighbors and their community and just shovel their own walk. It would be even better if they would be mindful of the infirm in their community and volunteer to keep their walk safe, as well. It’s the neighborly thing to do and how it has been done for decades. 
Unfortunately, as we all become more tied up in our own lives and less in the life of our communities, we don’t think about those around us. No one ignores their snow-covered sidewalk out of malice; it probably doesn’t occur to them that their lack of diligence hampers the ability of some frail senior, the opportunity to go uptown on their own, for an entire winter. Given that we can have snow cover for six months of our year, this lack of consideration is unconscionable.
For a start, it would be wise for each municipality to remind their citizens of their responsibility to their fellow townsfolk and why it is important. It is vital that everyone in our society has access to the services they need and when we don’t shovel, we are actively denying a human being a basic right. Surely we can do better. 

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