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  photo of Barbara McKee Mercy at Will

Johnson Cheu ruminates on getting out of buildings

by Barbara J. McKee

Barbara J. McKee is a freelance writer living in Albuquerque.

The elevator is stuck again. It's the sixth time since I began this job. Up until today, I would joke with the people passing me by on their way to the stairs, stating I was keeping watch to make sure no one ripped off a computer or two. To the women I knew, I would tell them this was the best way I knew to get a date with a cute fireman. This would bring the inevitable smiles and small talk, and then they would continue their descent to the ground where freedom lay.

But today I can't engage in such inane chatter. As I look out to the parking lot and street beyond, I have an overwhelming urge to crawl out of my wheelchair and make my way down the stairs no matter what the physical consequence. But I don't, reminding myself that the events of September 11th aren't happening to me, right here, right now. It's just a broken elevator. No one is trying to kill me; no one knows that I wait in fear, or even cares who I am. I want pound on the huge glass windows, screaming "get me out of here!" But I do not. Instead I lean over the safety railing, looking below at the world moving along, oblivious to my predicament.

But the panic refuses to subside. I can't help but think of those who perished just days ago as a frightened throng of people, some friends of the disabled person, filed past in desperation to save themselves. Some might have given encouraging words of rescue; some averted their eyes, knowing that they were leaving a fellow human being behind who might possibly die. I envision their panic; their knowing that life might possibly end right now, in horrific destruction. It dawns on them how much the passing adults fear them, how fast humans can disassociate themselves from someone who might keep them from their own salvation.

One brave soul took the chance and carried one of us on his back, telling the others he encountered that he would be back to get them. The relief of those who passed by was apparent, as this Good Samaritan lifted their burden of guilt. I heard the story of the man whose wheelchair wouldn't fit through the doorway of the stairwell in the North tower of the World Trade Center. He was left there with promises of rescue from unknown saviors. I imagined the pats on the shoulder, the murmurs of good luck and prayer. He had no choice but to trust them, unable to accept that the crumbling building surrounding him already sealed his fate.

As I think of the horrifying scenarios that took place, I can't help but begin to cry, knowing that I, and others like me, might suffer that same fate one day. Left behind with promises and lies, words of encouragement that mask the truth: there is no plan to be saved by ordinary people. That task is left to the "professionals", the men and women of firefighters and police. But what if they don't come? What if they can't? This is what happened inside the Towers, and it will happen again. Unless ordinary people overcome their fear of us.

They don't know that carrying a disabled person is much like carrying a child. For in fact we are reduced to the helplessness of an infant in times of crisis. Our bodies ignore the intelligence of our minds and starkly remind us of our vulnerability. A set of stairs brings us back to just who we are. A fire alarm announces to us that we are completely dependent on the altruism of humanity. We feel the fear begin in our gut, hoping that just one person will be our Good Samaritan today.

Recently there was a fire in my building two floors above me. As the staff made their trek to safety, they passed by asking how I was going to get out of the building. I had no answer for them. The department director had no plan, as she was already down in the courtyard. Fearing for my safety, one of the employees remarked to her how I was still in the stairwell. Alarmed, she made her way back up the two flights of stairs to the landing where I parked with my boss and her supervisor. All of them were bewildered at the situation and asked, "How do you usually get rescued?" Again I had no answer. Isn't this supposed to be her job? To know all of the evacuation procedures? To call the appropriate people to ensure her staff's safety? One of the brighter employees knew of "safe rooms" in the back of the building on each floor. They are surrounded in concrete, and I was supposed to go there and wait. She commented that I better tell someone that I would be there or else I'd be trapped, as there was no doorknob on the inside to let me out. The door would lock behind me, to "protect" me as I began my vigil for the person with the magical key. Naturally I refused such imprisonment, preferring to meet death head-on, eyes wide open.

Luckily the fire was a false alarm. But the conversation continued of what to do with me if a "real" emergency cropped up again. It became apparent that even though I worked for a department for the disabled, none of the staff really knew or understood what being disabled really meant. They looked to me for strength, answers, and direction. I was astounded, since every person was there to improve the lives of severely disabled children and young adults. Give them a complicated disability and they could rattle off the treatment plan and the local and federal resources available to the families. Ask them how to get me down to the ground floor if there was a fire, and they stared blankly, waiting for the manual to come out in print.

There is no time for a disability safety manual to be written by the able-bodied. That is our job. We must teach those around us how to save us, and teach ourselves. There are many of us that have no idea that it's their responsibility to case the building they are in to ensure their safety. How many of us ask about the escape plan for disabled people at our jobs? How many of us have one for our homes? I know hundreds of wheelchair-disabled people who have only one entrance/exit out of their house. This is unacceptable but inevitable. Even the best-designed accessible homes have only one way out.

I had an apartment for a couple of years that boasted it was the most accessible and modern in the area. Each apartment had one entrance. The windows were the only other escape. You had to plan your bedroom layout to leave enough space to shimmy up next to the window, crank open the glass, and punch out the screen. From there you had to transfer out of your chair and fall to the ground covered in pea gravel and decorative shrubs, left to crawl away from the building—if you didn't break your arm, shoulder, or hand in the fall.

Now I live in a house with two exits. One is ramped, one is not. The door that is not ramped has low enough steps that I can wheel over them backwards, albeit very slowly. I can only hope the fire doesn't spread too quickly. Both of these doorways are in the front of my house. If there is a fire in the front of the house and I'm home alone, I'm screwed. I'm in the process of building a third exit, right off of my bedroom. I'm punching out one of my windows that look over my backyard, and putting in a doorway that opens to a large deck with a ramp that leads to the driveway. But this modification is months away. In the meantime I'll have to hope my husband can bash out the old metal frame window and dump me out into the yard For those of us that live alone, there is even less hope. The fire department will have to save us, that is if we have marked our windows with the appropriate stickers to show them where we are—or place a big sign on the front door pronouncing where we sleep. I wonder how many disabled know that their local fire department should have a safety package with emblem stickers that you place on your front door stating a disabled person lives in the house, with additional stickers to place on the bedroom window. When I lived in Dearborn, Michigan, the fire department even had emblem stickers to announce how many children and pets were also at risk.

I did a search on the internet on "fire safety procedures for the disabled." On the site safetyinfo.com, all I could find was a brief mention for businesses that have "special" employees. The paragraph stated that disabled individuals should have a partner to help them—provided the company has taken the time to work out such a plan. The rescue plan for disabled people was mentioned as a sidebar, as if disabled people were an afterthought. Here's the complete text, much to my dismay:

"Determine the needs of disabled persons and non-English-speaking personnel. For example, a blind employee could be assigned a partner in case an evacuation is necessary.

"The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a disabled person as anyone who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, such as seeing, hearing, walking, breathing, performing manual tasks, learning, caring for oneself or working.

"Your emergency planning priorities may be influenced by government regulation. To remain in compliance you may be required to address specific emergency management functions that might otherwise be a lower priority activity for that given year."

OSHA has a website that is very thorough about telling companies how to set up a plan. But the desire is still up to them. There will be people who will email me in protest stating how it's the law and every employer must have one. But I can tell you from firsthand experience, most have no clue what to do with a disabled employee -- especially one who uses a wheelchair.

In buildings of the size of the World Trade Center, or any size for that matter, disabled individuals truly put their lives in danger if there isn't a well-developed plan that is part of the employee orientation. There needs to be a way out besides the elevator, or the precarious chance of help from a compassionate stranger. But how to remedy such dangers? Keep disabled employees from working anywhere other than the first floor? That would surely place them at risk of being denied employment based on physical barriers. Landing a job is tough enough as it is. Throw in the current reality of "safety in a crisis" and it will be close to impossible for a disabled person to get a job in any company that is housed in a multi-storied building.

Ideas are the cornerstones of change. I have one that I hope will begin some serious discussion that is long overdue in the business world. How about a special stretcher (or more) on each floor that can be slid down the stairs by other employees? Trying to get a wheelchair down a flight of stairs by people who have little to no experience is dangerous to all involved. But to have a stretcher available gives a physically disabled person a chance at life. Rescue teams have been using the stretcher for rescues on hillsides, avalanches, and other steep rescues for years. Why can't this type of device be implemented for disabled rescue? Training for such rescue makes sense, just as training to administer CPR has proved to save thousands of lives.

My fellow Americans in New York had no chance of survival. Blessed are those that tried to save them. The many that died had no idea how to save themselves. Neither did those around them. But that can change. It MUST change, as the baby-boomer population grows older, thereby increasing the disabled community to sizes never before seen. We can't ignore this need, nor should we. It is our duty as humans to help one another, sometimes at the risk of our own lives. That is what separates us from lower life forms. Leaving someone behind because the knowledge of how to save them is unknown leaves everyone feeling guilty and angry. There is no need to exclude this information from the ordinary citizen. CPR was once thought to be too dangerous to teach common people. That theory was proven wrong, and rightfully so. People can learn how to rescue the disabled, just as they have learned other life saving procedures. The ability to help those in times of crisis is the nobility of being human. We all want to live, and helping others to stay among the living takes knowledge. It's time to give us disabled people an equal chance at staying alive.

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