I'm the One with the White Flag

Last week I told you a WTF story that was a little disgusting, but also so absurd that it is almost funny; there is dark humour to be found in a wheelchair user being asked to walk through the metal detector at the airport. Well, my next story has no humour hidden between the lines.

During my year in teacher’s college, the university had a planned fire drill, as all institutions do. I knew about it ahead of time. I’m no stranger to fire drills. I go to a designated waiting area where, in the event of an actual emergency, firemen would come and evacuate me. Simple enough. During my year in teacher’s college, everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. I wasn’t expecting their evacuation policies or fire drill exercise to be any different.

I started noticing large square posters tacked to the wall near the elevators, showing a wheelchair that said something like, “In case of an emergency, call this number.” You’d think that said number would be displayed in large numbers on that same giant poster, right? Wrong. Attached to the poster was a tiny cardholder; the number we had to call in an emergency was on a tiny business card.

This is expecting a hell of a lot from someone with a disability. It assumes a) that someone has the dexterity to reach for and take a tiny business card from a holder on the wall; b) that someone has a cellphone, which they are able to dial and operate independently; and c) that someone will actually be able to converse with emergency services to tell them their location with a fire alarm blaring all around them. That was the system: Take a card, dial the number, tell emergency services where you are and wait. There weren’t even emergency phones on the wall with a direct connection. It was the stupidest system I’d ever head of. The first time I was made fully aware of it, I thought, “Well it’s a good thing I’m small and light and ‘carryable’... otherwise, I’m dead.”

The prof whose class I was in during the drill was aware of the plan and she’d told me she was going to stay with me after she’d sent the class out of the building. In the days leading up to the drill, I was chatting with a friend who shared almost every class with me, including the one during the drill. “Can you make me a white flag?” I joked. “I’m going to need it; something will go wrong.” Of course, he laughed me off.

Drill day arrives and the class starts to evacuate while I go out and sit in the hallway and take out my phone to start dialing the magic number. My friends are shocked and several of them feel very conflicted about leaving me, regardless of procedure. “Layla, we’ll just carry you. We can’t leave you here,” they said.

My prof assured them that she was going to stay with me and that they must evacuate. Eventually, the few who wanted to stay behind with me reluctantly leave. My prof and I dial the magic number and tell the operator where we are. We are not even told anything approximating, “Okay, this is only a drill, so we’re not coming, but in a real emergency, this is what we would do.” We’re just told: “Fine.” Ten minutes later, still no one had come. My prof takes out her cell phone and calls them again, shouting over the alarm that’s still blaring and the operator says, “You’re where? Oh, sorry! We got the room number wrong.” Fast-forward another five minutes and the alarm has stopped sounding, and students slowly start trickling back inside. No one ever came to me; no one even called back. No one ascertained my safety.

When my friend came back in, he said, “Wait, no one came? Geez, I really thought you were joking about the white flag. Okay, listen, next time I’m throwing you over my shoulder and we’re getting the hell out of here together. I hope you’re okay with that.”

I eventually logged complaints with the Faculty of Education, which scapegoated by saying that all evacuation policies were university wide, so I’d have to take it up with the university at large. The Fire Marshall for the area was made aware of the situation, but neither my prof nor I ever heard back from him.

My coordinating instructor had me tell the class about my experience. I greatly appreciated that she took it seriously enough to let me share what happened with a room full of colleagues, most of whom weren’t in my class at the time and had no idea what happened. I told them the same thing that I told the Faculty of Education and the Fire Marshall, “The only reason I felt safe is because I’m light and I know that people can and will carry me out of here if something ever actually happens. But a lot of people with disabilities don’t have the option of being carried. They rely on the evacuation procedures of the places where they live, work and go to school. If I had to rely on this university’s emergency evacuation policies – if there was a real fire last week, there’s no question in my mind that I would have died.”

Any similar experiences to share? Or better yet, better ones?!

Layla Guse Salah
DT Network