In my world, emergency preparedness is a bit of a priority. Whatever I do, wherever I go, I usually have to give some thought to my safety. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not obsessed… just vigilant.
During my third year at college, I learned the importance of emergency preparedness first hand. It was the beginning of winter break, and most students and faculty had headed off by the time I finished my mid-term exam late on the Friday evening. I was heading to the second-floor elevator when the building suddenly went dark. Pretty sure the college had paid its electricity bill, I concluded it was a power outage. Which meant no working elevator. And stairs are, needless to say, not an option for me and my wheelchair.
So there I was, stranded on the second floor, in the dark.
Eventually a security guard came along to tell me I would need to head home because the campus was closed. As he walked away I followed and vocalized to get his attention. With my assistive communication technology I asked, “How do I get out?”
It took a minute before he realized my dilemma. Then he said, “Wait here. I’ll go get the security supervisor.”
A short time later two security officers arrived. Their suggested solution was that they would lift my 180-kg wheelchair down two flights of stairs....
At their words my life flashed before my eyes. Politely nixing the idea, I suggested they call 911 for assistance. (It was either that or the three of us were going to be camping out together for the night.)
Many indecisive minutes ticked away. Eventually the decision to call 911 was made. The moment the security supervisor began to dial, the lights—thankfully—came back on.
When the college administration learned of my adventure, emergency measures were implemented to rectify the situation.
I’d like to tell you this situation was an isolated event, but it’s not. So whenever I arrive at a conference or a hotel, I ask what the plan is in the event of an emergency for evacuating a person who uses a wheelchair (and is non-verbal). The blank stares I receive in response to my question are not very comforting.
If we are truly committed to creating inclusive workplaces and communities, we need to take into account the diverse needs of every member of the community. Bouncing a motorized wheelchair down the stairs is not the best evacuation strategy!