I was 10 years old when I sprained my ankle playing cops and robbers in my backyard. Instead of my bruised, swollen foot healing after an ice pack and some ibuprofen, the pain became unbearable. Three weeks later, sitting in B.C. Childrens’ Hospital’s emergency room, I was diagnosed with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS). CRPS is a rare neurological disorder that causes extreme pain, limits mobility, and causes changes to bone and skin.
Over the coming months, I juggled school in the morning and trips to the hospital in the afternoon.
Everything about getting around was difficult. I couldn’t carry things, the wind burned my purple foot, and I had less than ideal balance, but it was not until I experienced my first emergency drill that I was met with the danger in my lack of mobility.
The bell rang through my Grade 5 classroom. My peers made their way to the field as I struggled to keep up on a pair of crutches. The gap increased until I was the last to arrive. As I sat — or, more accurately, fell — onto the grass, it hit me: if this were a real emergency, I would not escape.
Emergency drills can leave disabled participants with more questions than answers. What happens to those who can’t escape? What happens to those who are physically unable to follow “stop, drop and roll?”
‘A constant feeling of terror’
I knew school was always going to be more difficult for me, but I was adamant about staying in general education classes. In a world, and school system, that so often tries to segregate, this left me straddling the disabled and able-bodied population. Students in special education classrooms often had a special education assistant (SEA) who would assist them during an emergency. I was not offered one. What was apparent was that no matter how hard I tried, there were situations where I would inevitably require assistance.
I cannot navigate hills on my own, and stairs were extremely difficult. By the end of Grade 9, I was pulled out of school due to a severe relapse and began hospital/homebound schooling. I had to relearn to walk, and was left with overall left side weakness, including drop foot.
I returned to high school in Grade 10, moving slowly but surely. However, knowing that an emergency drill was looming left me with a constant feeling of terror. To make matters worse, growing up in the active-shooter generation made the possibility of a tragedy occurring in my school feel all too real.
As the bell rang and my first fire drill of the year commenced, I coincidentally ran into my home school teacher. We sat outdoors on the cafeteria balcony as I administered medication, staring down a large cement staircase that may as well have been Mount Everest.
That’s when she told me a refrain I’d hear so many more times: “In a real fire we would get you down the stairs.” My stomach sank. It was clear they didn’t understand the gravity of the situation.
In Grade 11, we had a lockdown drill. As the loudspeaker announced an intruder was roaming our halls, students covered windows and locked their classroom doors. Everyone fended for themselves, but I was too slow to get a good hiding spot.
As I sat out in the open, again, local police officers entered our classroom and told me that, in a real-life shooter scenario, I’d be dead. “Try harder.”
I was trying.
The last drill I experienced caught me when I was in my high school’s library. As my class exited, I faded to my all-too-familiar place at the back of the group. My teacher told me that someone would help me if this was a real emergency. They exited the building, leaving me behind.
Eventually, my individualized education plan was amended to add a section about emergency protocol. It mentioned that a staff member would assist me in an emergency. What was missing from this documentation was a specific plan. What if everyone else assumed I had been taken care of and filed out in a rush? The looming fear of being left behind persisted.
As I sat out in the open, again, local police officers entered our classroom and told me that, in a real-life shooter scenario, I’d be dead.
I eventually left the school as a result of multiple disability-related issues, some of which were no fault of the districts, and finished my education splitting my time between a small private school and homeschooling from my kitchen counter. Emergency protocol was promptly addressed at my new school where a specific SEA was assigned to assist me to safety, even during drills.
I no longer had to worry about dying in an emergency simply because I could not get out. But, it took years to get someone to hear my pleas for safety.
It is bigger than me
Mine is not an isolated case. Many parents are worried about the lack of emergency planning with special needs students.
Mother Contessa Chessma of Anaheim Hills, Calif. was told that the safety of her son Seth, who cannot move his legs below the knees, hinged on fellow students locating a teacher to assist him.
After a recent emergency helicopter landing in New York, disability advocates took to Twitter to discuss their harrowing emergency tales. One person’s office instructed those with disabilities to wait in a to stairwell that was fire-resistant for just three hours maximum.
Another spoke of her son’s elementary school. He is in Grade 2 and in a wheelchair along with eight other students. When she asked about the emergency plans they told her “they were all hands on deck” but no specific plan is in place.
When we leave disabled peers behind, we reinforce the idea that other, able-bodied students’ lives are a greater priority. That’s the attitude that leads to a Toronto student being forgotten on a school bus for six hours in 2017.
This moves beyond high-school classrooms and normalizes an ableism that kids carry with them later into life.
Able-bodied students are at risk
It is not just disabled students at risk. With old and outdated infrastructure, many schools pose a risk to able-bodied students as well. The B.C. provincial government has pledged to spend $1.6 billion on 182 high-risk seismic upgrades, to protect against earthquakes, but not everyone is happy about it.
Vancouver’s Eric Humber Secondary is eligible for an $80-million upgrade, but will lose 26 per cent of its square footage if the upgrade goes through as a result of the sheer cost. The school would lose its auditorium, receive a smaller gym, and have less space for arts and music programs. The ever-present risk of an earthquake, even in B.C., may not be enough to outweigh the loss of extracurricular spaces that matter to the Eric Humber community.
What the one-size-fits-all approach to keeping kids safe during an earthquake fails to recognize is the unique needs of the communities these schools serve — both the disabled students integrated into classrooms and as their able-bodied classmates whose buildings are not safe.
Emergency drills are supposed to make people feel safe in the wake of a disaster, and that should extend to everyone. I was an afterthought for years, despite pleading to be taken seriously.
I have since grown up and steadied my feet a little. Despite that, I still walk into new rooms thinking I will be forgotten, and don’t always speak up when I can no longer keep up in groups. I don’t think my fight against ableism will be won or lost over a fire drill, but it is a tangible first step to tell young disabled kids that they belong.
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