No More Asterisks
- By Laurie Watanabe
- Feb 01, 2019
A friend recently sat through a presentation of how to evacuate his multi-story office building during a fire drill.
I heard that hall monitors and safety vests were involved. It sounded like a thorough presentation. Except for one thing: There was no plan to evacuate anyone who used a wheelchair or had a mobility-related disability.
The presenter’s instructions for the fire drill: (1) Designate a monitor to stay with the person in the wheelchair; (2) Evacuate all ambulatory persons from the building; (3) Instruct the monitor and the person in the wheelchair to wait near or in the stairwell for the remainder of the fire drill.
I guess the last, unspoken step was (4) Hope you never need to actually evacuate, because you have no plan for that.
I understand a fire drill is not an emergency. But we practice for emergencies to prepare for them. Researchers have confirmed that knowing how to evacuate your workplace — or the airplane you’re on, or the hotel room you’re in — does help during actual emergencies. Think of it as muscle memory: If you know where the stairways are in your hotel or office, or where the exits are in your airplane, finding those escape routes will be easier in an actual emergency… particularly if people around you are panicking.
By parking wheelchair users in stairwells, we lose precious opportunities to create plans and practice complete evacuations. We also send a message: People with disabilities aren’t worth the hassle.
Situations like that fire drill presentation suggest that accessibility is too often a goal only when it’s cheap or convenient enough. Even as the Americans with Disabilities Act turns 30 next year, true accessibility remains elusive. We build ramps to get wheelchair users in the front door, and elevators to get them above ground level. But if there’s a fire or an earthquake, we have no plan beyond leaving them in stairwells and hoping for the best.
Accessibility with an asterisk isn’t accessibility at all. People with disabilities are still expected to use different doors, sit in certain areas in movie theaters or restaurants, and stay put in their seats throughout long flights. Would that be okay for people of color? For people of a certain gender? For people of different ages, religions, socioeconomic backgrounds or education levels?
Inclusivity is a civil right. Denying complete accessibility is a civil rights violation, and it should be beneath us.
There are ways to safely evacuate wheelchair users from multi-story buildings, just as there are ways to provide access to restrooms on airplanes. We don’t lack the engineering expertise or the talent. We need to be sure we don’t lack determination, either.
This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Mobility Management.
Laurie Watanabe is the editor of Mobility Management. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.