Who among us hasn’t suffered the winter doldrums at one time or another? Darkness, freezing temperatures, icy roads—plus the flu, colds and COVID-19 infections that are rampant this time of year—can make you want to crawl into bed and stay there until spring arrives. For disabled people, winter can present multiple health and safety risks. Here are some tips to get you through the rest of the long winter season.
1. Avoid crowded indoor environments
Some individuals with disabilities have compromised immune systems that make it easy for them to catch viruses and other contagious diseases. Stay healthy by socializing in small groups, via Zoom or with people who agree to be masked. Speaking of masks, always wear one when in stores, on public transportation and especially in healthcare facilities.
2. Dress for the harsh weather
While this may seem obvious, it’s important to know what fabrics are most protective against the cold. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that adults and children wear hats, scarves, mittens and water-resistant coats and boots. It’s also critical to dress in layers.
“Be sure the outer layer of your clothing is tightly woven, preferably wind resistant, to reduce body-heat loss caused by wind,” says the CDC. “Wool, silk, or polypropylene inner layers of clothing will hold more body heat than cotton. Stay dry—wet clothing chills the body rapidly. Excess perspiration will increase heat loss, so remove extra layers of clothing whenever you feel too warm.”
3. Be aware of the signs of hypothermia and frostbite
The CDC advises people to pay attention to symptoms like “shivering, exhaustion, confusion, fumbling hands, memory loss, slurred speech and drowsiness,” which are all signs of hypothermia. Symptoms such as “a white or grayish-yellow skin area; skin that feels unusually firm or waxy; and numbness” may signal a case of frostbite. If you suspect that you or a friend or family member is suffering from these conditions, seek medical care at once.
4. Winterize your wheelchair or other mobility aid
Cars aren’t the only vehicles that require winterizing. United Disability Services recommends replacing wheelchair tires with snow tires for the winter months. Snow tires “are softer and easily grip snow to avoid getting stuck.” UDS advises against using rollators (4-wheel walkers) in the snow and reminds cane and standard walker users to make sure their rubber tips are clean to avoid slips or falls. Cane users may also want to consider adding an “ice-pick-like attachment” to the bottom of their cane that provides a more secure grip when walking on snow or ice.
5. Have an emergency home kit
In the event that a severe winter storm keeps you homebound, UDS recommends that you have the following necessities on hand: bottled water, non-perishable food, first aid kit, snow shovel, salt or ice melt, flashlights, extra blankets, and enough medication to last for several days. If you rely on medical equipment that uses electricity, be prepared with a backup power source such as a portable generator. Similarly, if you use equipment that requires batteries take care that all batteries are fully charged.
6. Fight isolation
While it can be challenging to socialize during the winter months, try to do so whenever possible. Many people become depressed and lonely during winter as they are frequently stuck at home by themselves. When weather permits, take part in social and recreational activities outside of the house, and when it’s dangerously cold or icy, find a Zoom group or online class where you can (virtually) meet other people.