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12/09/2018 19:33 EST | Updated 12/10/2018 13:18 EST

Benveet Gill Wants Snow Removal In Edmonton That Won't Isolate People In Wheelchairs

People with mobility issues don't have the luxury of stepping over piles of snow, Benveet Gill says.

Benveet Gill is fed up with people and businesses who ignore the needs of people who use wheelchairs.
Courtesy of Benveet Gill
Benveet Gill is fed up with people and businesses who ignore the needs of people who use wheelchairs.

Benveet Gill uses a wheelchair and she's frustrated by the same problem every winter.

In Edmonton where she lives, snow is often shovelled into accessible parking spots or onto curb cuts. Since she developed a spinal injury from a viral infection six and a half years ago, that snow makes her life miserable. A big pile might be annoying for most people to navigate, but for anyone in a wheelchair, it's downright impossible.

Last Thursday, when she drove to her gym and found the accessible parking space full of snow, "it made my blood boil," Gill said. Her sister helped her make a video illustrating that the snowbank completely blocked Gill's mobility.

She posted the video on Facebook later that day. By Sunday evening, it had been shared nearly 3,000 times, and had over 110,000 views.

"A lot of people with disabilities have been sitting at home quiet, and they just deal with it because there's no other choice," Gill, 36, told HuffPost Canada in a phone interview. "For the last six years, I've been dealing with it too. This year, I have just had it. I will not put up with this anymore."

Gill said she doesn't think anyone is being malicious when they cover accessible parking spots with snow. Usually those spots are close to a business's door, and if the parking space is empty, she can see why someone might absentmindedly shovel snow there. But she wishes people would think about what it's like to get around when you're in a wheelchair, or have reduced mobility.

"Unless somebody in your inner circle is affected by a disability, that switch doesn't really turn on in your head, that maybe people with mobility issues actually need those spots," she said.

Courtesy of Benveet Gill
Benveet Gill with a trainer.

Gill doesn't blame her gym, because the problem is much broader than that. "It's all over the city. It's residential, commercial. It's everywhere," she said.

The same thing happened on Saturday, when she went out to dinner. It happens in her neighbourhood, too — there are a few empty lots near her house, so there's no one to shovel the sidewalks in front of those areas. She says she's lucky that she has a car she can access through her garage.

"If I had to take the bus, I wouldn't be able to, in my own neighbourhood," she said.

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Gill said these issues might sound trivial to someone who doesn't know what it's like to live without the ability to walk freely and easily. If you're physically prevented from moving around when you try to go out with friends, or get to your job, can often feel like there's no point in being out in the world.

"That's why so many people [with disabilities] are forced to live in isolation," Gill says.

It's not an exaggeration: a recent U.K. study found that half of people living with disabilities describe themselves as lonely. Suicide is the leading cause of death for people with total paraplegia, and the second leading cause of death for people with partial paraplegia. For people who have had spinal cord injuries, suicide rates are highest in the first five years following the injury, "when people are still navigating their new world," according to the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation.

The overall suicide rate for people with disabilities is "really high, and it doesn't need to be," Gill said. "The isolation and the attitudinal barriers ... that's more of a hindrance than the snow."

Courtesy of Benveet Gill
"When you start paying attention, you'll see it," Benveet Gill said about barriers faced by people with mobility issues.

She says she's encouraged by how supportive people have been in response to her video. Many people are thanking Gill for speaking up, or asking her what they can do to help. (Her advice: if someone in a wheelchair is trying to get on an elevator, give them priority. She's had to wait while able-bodied people pack onto crowded elevators at many a hockey game.)

Gill hopes her video will inspire people to think about a perspective they may have ignored otherwise. Someone who spoke to her about it sent her a photo later that day of another parking lot in a different part of Edmonton, where the same thing had happened.

"When you start paying attention, you'll see it," Gill said.

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