Staying safe during the winter months when living with vision loss

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November is now upon us! For the people of North Dakota, the start of winter is also the time to prepare for traveling in icy and cold conditions.

Treacherous winter weather comes with many hazards, including the possibility of falling on slippery, icy surfaces. It’s even more challenging as we get older and are less agile. 

Here are some simple things you can do to keep safe while out and about this winter:

•    Preplan your travel. Get to know as much as you can about the location you’re traveling to. Check the weather, plan your route, and give yourself extra time to get there.
•    Remove snow and ice. To avoid falls, if you are unable to shove on your own, ask a family member, friend, or neighbor to shovel your porch, steps, and pathways. Have them remove ice by using salt, cat litter, or sand.
•    Stay Vigilant. It is easy to lose your path and landmarks when walking on snow. Use an accessible compass or a cell phone app to keep track of your directions and location.  
•    Be visible when walking. Wear brightly colored, reflective safety clothing so that drivers can see you in the dark. Put reflective tape on your cane and travel with a flashlight.
•    Wear ice and snow grips on your shoes. There are several products available that cover the outside of the soles of your shoes and have metal grips on the bottom for added traction when walking on snow and ice. These covers can be found at Walmart, Scheels, Cabela’s, or on Amazon.  
•    Find new landmarks and walk slowly. When snow starts to cover your current landmarks, find or make new landmarks to help you navigate. These can include bushes, fences, and signposts.  When necessary you can flag your own property to have an additional landmark.  
•    To uncover snow or break up ice, tap your cane harder on the ground or “touch and slide.” Use a long white cane to probe for changes like sudden inclines. On black ice, which isn’t detectable with a cane, take smaller steps than usual.
•    Limit your reliance on your guide dog in bad weather. Your dog can lose its scent in heavy snow. According to the Guide Dog Foundation, more dogs get lost during winter than at any other time of year. Dry your dog after being out in the snow. To avoid cuts and cracked pads, clean and dry your dog’s paws and rub on a little petroleum jelly. There are also shoes for dogs that help prevent their feet from injury. 
•    Dress in layers. Loose-fitting wool, silk or polypropylene inner layers of clothing protect you from wind and frostbite. Layer your clothing—including coat or jacket, sweater and scarf—to retain body temperature when outside and allow you to remove layers as needed indoors.
•    Cover your skin in frigid temperatures. If you travel with a guide cane but find it difficult to use while wearing gloves, it might help to cut off the tip of the index finger (or more fingers) so you can feel the cane. For a mitten, you can make a hole at the tip and insert the cane so you can hold it inside the mitten. You can also purchase “mobility mittens” that cover your cane and hand with cuffed openings. And to make sure you hear important sounds while traveling, avoid hats with ear flaps or earmuffs. If these are needed during extreme conditions make sure you lift them when preparing to cross streets.   
•    Wear waterproof winter boots that have good traction. Although traction will help prevent falls, the soles of your boots should be thin enough so you can feel the surface as you walk. Another option are footwear traction devices attached to the bottom of your boots.
•    Stay connected. Travel with a cell phone and charger. Take a device with you that you use for reading such as a handheld magnifier, portable video magnifier, tablet or e-reader that provide magnification.
•    Tell family or friends where you’re going. Identify your planned route, and what time you expect to arrive and return. Ask them to inform authorities if you’re very late.
•    For peace of mind, stay at home during extreme weather if possible. If you must travel, consider riding with a friend, or taking a cab or public transport instead of walking. Should you encounter a problem, don’t hesitate to ask for help.

These tips are a combination of ideas from experienced, Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialists who have worked in areas of the U.S. that have extreme weather. 

If you have questions or concerns, please call the North Dakota Vision Services/School for the Blind 701-795-2700 and talk to one of our COMS.  

Also check out our Golden Guide O&M in the Winter!

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