In Case of Emergency, What Happens to Disabled Students?

One of my most vivid third grade memories involves a fire drill. While the bells clamored overhead, we dutifully streamed out the door of our ground-level classroom, proceeding down the ramp to our required assembly point on the playground, near the swings. But one of my classmates wasn’t with us: A student with Down syndrome who hated the sound, and sat frozen in the corner of the classroom while his aide pleaded with him.

“Don’t be scared,” she said, and I wondered how much scarier it would be in an actual fire, with the noise and billows of smoke and the flicker of light and shadow. The school never did change its protocol for fire drills to accommodate him.

Fortunately, there was never a real fire during my time there.

School safety and security procedures are in the news a great deal recently, primarily in the context of emergency drills for mass shootings, and how schools respond when a hypothetical nightmare becomes real. We didn’t have lockdowns in school when I was growing up, so I don’t know the peculiar, habituated terror of going through the motions to hide from a hypothetical mass shooter, nor do I know the jolt of adrenaline of hearing that it’s not a drill. Both of these things happen far too often in schools across the United States.

They’re not the only examples of emergency preparedness: Schools have to hold drills for fires, tornados, and other events, like earthquakes. All designed to develop muscle memory for students, so they know exactly what to do and where to go when the alarm sounds.

Ask yourself: how recently has your local school district updated their disaster planning? Have they directly engaged disabled students and faculty in preparing for the worst in a fashion that’s truly inclusive?

There are many accessibility factors to consider. What if you can’t hear the alarm sounding? What if the flashing lights induce a seizure? What if your classroom is on the second floor and you’re barred from using the elevator? What if the sound overloads you and you feel helpless, trapped in the middle of the chaos? What if you’re a disabled student and the nature of your impairment makes it difficult — or even impossible — to get out? What if you’re a disabled teacher, paraprofessional, or staff member trying to look out for the welfare of your students while also addressing your own access needs?

Are we failing disabled students? Elijah Armstrong, a student advocate and junior at Penn State, says he thinks we are.

“There was a lockdown that happened during the day, but they didn’t account for me,” he says, narrating the story of a lockdown — not a drill — from his time in high school. “For a brief period of time, I was wandering the halls, not sure where to go.” Armstrong had been receiving tutoring, and was on campus even though he wasn’t in class. Eventually a school official found him and took him to the library.

He says this failure of access reflects larger problems with access in school settings. “I think a lot of times, people, even with the best of intentions, will go in and say and ‘this is what we’ll do, and later we’ll figure out what to do with students with disabilities.’ That leaves a disconnect, especially because the plan doesn’t necessarily go off as cleanly as it does in an ideal situation.” This failure to think accessibility first, he says, leads to situations where disabled students aren’t included in disaster planning and are left at a disadvantage, feeling like they can’t assume school personnel have considered their needs.

Disabled people are often required to be proactive about making access requests for fear that they haven’t been considered, or counted. Those fears are grounded — Josh, a disabled Texas public school teacher, expresses frustration: “I do not believe that emergency drills do enough to help faculty prepare to serve their disabled students and co-workers during emergencies. For example, I have had students with mobility and hearing disabilities, but I’ve never been trained how to accommodate and assist them during fire drills, tornado drills, or lock-downs.”

Like Armstrong, he believes “accessibility first” should be a planning watchword: “If a disaster or emergency is worth preparing for, then we owe it to each person on campus to include their needs in the plan.” Treating access as an “afterthought,” says Armstrong, creates a perfect storm. So does not including disabled people as advocates in disaster planning. The people most suited to describe access needs, and to bring up issues that have previously gone unrecognized, are disabled people themselves, but they’re not necessarily included in conversations about emergency preparedness in schools, or the planning for schools and districts that want to update their procedures.

Armstrong notes that student activists often play an active role in advocacy around a variety of campus issues, including accessibility, but that this isn’t entirely fair. “The onus shouldn’t be on them,” he says, adding: “We need to do better to make students safe.”

My classmate all those years ago could have been in life-threatening danger in a real emergency, just as Armstrong could have been killed if the lockdown had involved an active shooter, or a wheelchair-using teacher could be trapped in a hazardous room during a weather emergency. These problems are not the result of disability; instead, they are the result of indifference to disability, and a refusal to incorporate access into disaster planning from the start.

With emergency preparedness on people’s minds, now is the time to take action: Contact your school district to ask whether disability is included in their disaster planning. Ask schools for copies of their handbooks so you can evaluate what they’re calling “disaster planning.” Consider running for school board or supporting a school board campaign that prominently includes disability in its platform. Do what you can to make change, because safety must include everyone.

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s.e. smith is a writer and agitator based in Northern California, focusing on social justice, with a particular interest in disability rights, trans issues, and rural subjects. smith’s work has appeared in publications like Pacific Standard, Rolling Stone, The Guardian, In These Times, and Vox. You can follow smith on Twitter @sesmith.