Here on the pages of The Billings Gazette, we — like many residents — have carped about the slick roads and the how it seems like plowing has lagged.
I have to admit: Having come back to this wonderful community, it seems like for all the things we do well, plowing during winter weather isn't one of them. Every time I bring up the subject, I am reminded that we live in the Montana banana belt where snow usually melts even as quickly as it arrives; where the only thing we like griping about more than icy roads is paying taxes.
Then, we got a letter from Dennis Hein on Dec. 29. Hein and his wife are both wheelchair-bound. If you're like me, I thought getting through icy streets and sidewalks able-bodied was bad enough. But Hein's assessment was that Billings doesn't do a very good job of snow removal, not necessarily the City of Billings, but the residents themselves.
He also put out a rather original challenge: Either city employees or elected officials should have to spend a week in a wheelchair during the summer or winter.
The idea, Hein said, has been less than enthusiastically received.
"I haven't heard back from any of them," Hein said.
"I didn't really expect to."
His point wasn't to have the entire city staff out in wheelchairs. Instead, he wants people to take notice of how hard it is to get around if you're in a chair.
He's been writing The Gazette occasionally for the past decade about the challenges of being in a chair and getting around.
True enough: Billings has gotten better since he first took his cause to print. It has started to put curb cuts into many of its crosswalks. And many businesses have installed door-opening units.
Still, there's a lot of work to be done — especially during winter.
When some folks don't help to clear their portion of the sidewalk, Hein has no choice but to either risk getting stuck or turn around. Some business owners may not realize that pushing the snow to the edge of the sidewalk may indeed clear a walkway, but cover the curb cuts, making it impossible to get around.
"What I'd like to see is the city of Billings enforce its own codes," Hein said.
In other words, he wants tickets written, or in-person reminders to clear to the walks.
Then there are things that are more subtle.
"Do you know how high the crown of the streets are?" Hein asked.
He was referring to the highest point in the streets, which normally slope very gradually, almost imperceptibly, toward the center.
"Because of the paving and repaving the streets, the crowns have gotten higher," Hein said. "You have to work hard to get up the streets, then you have to use your brake to go down and hope that there's no pothole."
But this isn't just some laundry list of how hard it is for those in a wheelchair to get around Billings.
I don't believe it would take me a week, a day or even an hour in a wheelchair to realize how good much we take for granted. And the purpose of this isn't just to carp about the city. The city is an all-too-easy target. It can't solve all the problems, but that rarely stops folks from blaming it.
Instead, we should remember that Billings has progressed and gotten better for those who are disabled. Yet Hein should also remind us that shoveling walks or maybe even paying more for snow removal may not be a luxury.
"There are days when we just have to stay home," Hein said. "It's just too much to go out when parking lots aren't cleared and you get stuck in the snow. And remember that snap where it was 20 below?"
"When you can't really wear gloves to push the wheels on your chair, and that metal is exposed to air," Hein continued. "It was unbelievable."
All of a sudden, the deep ruts on the side streets don't seem quite as bad.