When You’re Disabled, Emergencies Pose An Even Greater Risk

Unsplash/Piotr Chrobot
Emergency protocols are designed to keep people safe. But what if these protections don’t account for your lived reality?

Every morning, I do the same thing. I open my eyes and say a bracha (Hebrew for blessing), in which I thank g-d for allowing me to wake up and experience his wonders again. I pull out a wash basin from under my bed and ritually wash my hands to start the day pure of mind and body. Then, like everyone else, I grab my phone, still in my PJs, and begin my morning ritual of half-heartedly reading through morning tweets.

After the Vegas shooting, these tweets contained condolences, thoughts, and prayers for the victims and their families. Like many, I was overcome with sadness and horror, devastated that over 50 people would not be able to wake up to welcome a new day.

And then I felt something all too familiar to someone like me: an acute pang of anxiety. What would have happened, I wondered, had I been there?

Emergency situations — be they relatively minor, like fire alarms going off at a mall, or serious, like terrorist attacks — are inevitably anxiety-inducing. But at least most people can take comfort in knowing that there are existing protocols in place to keep them safe. Exits are labeled. Fire stairs are obvious. Locations of fire extinguishers are a conspicuous bright red. Emergency phones in cities are clearly marked in blue, and include easy-to-understand instructions. Emergency maps make it easy to find help.

Imagine what would happen, though, if these protocols failed you. Imagine if you were trapped in a mall surrounded by frantic masses, or seeking assistance after a shooting, and you were unable to see or hear your surroundings.

As a DeafBlind woman, I know this reality well. Like countless others with disabilities, I am often left without recourse during times when I most need assistance. It’s difficult for me to communicate with staff on a normal day; during an emergency, when sirens are blaring, throngs of people are pushing through crowds, alarms are ringing, and lights are flashing, it’s nearly impossible.

Meanwhile, in a world that more and more feels unsafe, I’m increasingly worried that I’ll find myself in jeopardy.

I am often left without recourse during times when I most need assistance.

As mass shootings in San Bernardino, Orlando, Newtown, Las Vegas, and elsewhere have garnered national headlines, I’ve experienced gun violence in my own proverbial backyard. When I was living in Portland, Oregon, there was a shooting at my local mall; when I was still living in my hometown of Pittsburgh, a hospital I frequented was the target of a shooting. Only months ago, there was an attack in Time Square the day after I had been in that exact location.

Protests in cities I’ve lived in have also increasingly turned violent. In 2009, Pittsburgh was host to the G20, and police used excessive violence on the gathering protestors all over the city.

I’m an Orthodox Jew, and in recent years, my synagogue has installed concrete barriers to prevent cars being used to ram the building, while my Jewish friends have started hiring security teams for their weddings, because large crowds of visibly Jewish people can easily become targets.

And then there are the violent white nationalist rallies that have transpired in recent months, including in Charlottesville.

I’ve always been aware that such situations pose a threat to my safety, which is why I’ve always had basic emergency plans in place. Because communicating with a DeafBlind individual is slower than with a fully sighted or hearing person, emergencies pose several difficulties. The first is communicating that there is a problem. The second is conveying what the problem is. The third is outlining a plan.

If my companion or passer-by doesn’t know American Sign Language (the best communication method for me when I can’t hear), I’m left to rely on texting or POP (Print on Palm). To circumnavigate this, I’ve trained my friends and family to take my hand and sign a big X on it, indicating that there is an emergency, after which I am to take their arm and stay with them. When it is safe to do so, my companion will pause to explain to me what is going on, and what the plan is from there. Sans ASL, speech, and vision, this strategy efficiently communicates that there is danger, while helping me to safety.

There are other precautions I take. To access emergency information, I need to use my braille-display phone, which can be unreliable during natural disasters. So when blizzards are set to make their way toward my area, I’ll pack a bag and stay with friends. I’m also acutely aware that in the event of an emergency evacuation, I can easily be forgotten. So I have a friend who’s agreed to be my point person in case of evacuations, and we’ve created a simple action plan enabling me to evacuate with her family.

Another preemptive measure I take is refraining from attending events that I suspect could complicate communication. This includes anything particularly loud, or with obtrusive lighting. If I’m going to concerts or other large events, I go with someone who knows ASL. But for larger, potentially more volatile events, like protests and marches, I politely bow out altogether.

I always thought my plans would be enough — after all, how many people actually sit down and prep for all of the above situations? But in the wake of Charlottesville, when I returned from a peaceful Shabbat to find my Facebook and Twitter feeds full of Nazi images, I immediately felt like I needed to do more. So I empowered myself by becoming even better prepared for emergencies.

I went online and bought a small wallet with a single pocket, and a pretty purple bracelet. The bracelet prominently featured a medical symbol, also in purple. On it was my name, that I’m DeafBlind, and that I require a TASL interpreter. In my little wallet is a full copy of my medical insurance cards, as well as a list of my medications and emergency contacts (local and family). There’s also some information about my guide dog and hearing aids. I have a lanyard that says I am DeafBlind that I pull out for identification purposes. Everything is meant to be Shabbat friendly — meaning no electronic records required. It can all be quickly and easily moved from my weekday purse to my special Shabbat carrying bag where I carry my braille prayer books, in case something happens when I won’t be carrying a phone with me.

Yet even with all of that, I still know that most of my personal safety is out of my control. I can’t stop someone from targeting me and my friends while we’re walking to or from synagogue. Nor can I stop someone from walking into a building I’m in with a gun. I can’t stop my train from catching fire. I can’t prevent ending up as a target for domestic terrorism.

And, frustratingly, I also cannot control interactions between myself, the public, and emergency responders. I’ve been stuck at stores with the fire alarm going off where dozens of people stream by without a second glance. More recently, my train had a serious malfunction, and tore down power lines. Unable to hear the overhead announcements, my fellow passengers needed to relay safety information to me. When conductors went by, I told them repeatedly that I am DeafBlind and would need assistance exiting and boarding our rescue train. The task ended up being left to, once again, my fellow passengers.

None of these were serious emergencies. But what if they had been? The truth is, my personal safety when I’m out in public is largely dependent on acts of random kindness. Which, unsurprisingly, makes me very uncomfortable. I exist as an afterthought.

Even harassment quickly can become an emergency. I was once cornered at a train station with a man clearly propositioning me for a date, and sex. Basic safety protocol was to board a more crowded car. But I couldn’t see well enough to judge crowds on trains, or use my hearing to discern which car was safest from a station platform. I picked a random car — and guessed wrong. It turned out to be completely empty, and the man followed me, continuing to pressure me to reveal my name and contact information. (Thankfully, at the next stop, a large crowd got on and I was able to squirm away.)

I’ve had people scream at me, take my picture without permission, and otherwise manhandle me in public. Overall, very few people have intervened on my behalf.

At the same time, when I do express my fears and anxieties, they often aren’t taken seriously. “You could get hit by a car just walking out your front door! Why worry?” someone will announce, flippantly. Or, “Just come with us, you’re not really politically active unless you go to this march.” Or, “Stop ignoring people, you’re being rude!” Or, when I share a specific incident: “Shame that happened. But what can you do?”

Actually, a lot. And this is where my personal story becomes a plea. I can take every precaution in the world and still not be safe — but there is plenty others can do to help.

When I do express my fears and anxieties, they often aren’t taken seriously.

To start, simply be willing to intervene on someone’s behalf, and help guide them to safety. Be the person who witnesses a blind woman getting hit by a car who makes note of the license plate and calls 9–1–1. Make sure to never belittle people with disabilities when they talk to you about their emergency plans; take their anxieties seriously, and make a point to remember (and practice!) what they want you to do. Understand that the risk to personal safety only intensifies when minority statuses overlap, and be even more sympathetic to the anxieties of people with multiple minority identities. Something might seem silly to you (like my fear of a terrorist attack at my synagogue, a Lyft driver being anti-Semitic, or being left behind in a fire) — but it isn’t rooted in paranoia. It’s a pragmatic response to a serious threat to personal safety.

Disabled people aren’t just sitting at home. We’re out and about despite the lack of safety assurances. The world is dangerous, and we might get stuck in a burning building because no one will take a second to give a helping hand, but we’re out anyway. At Black Lives Matter protests, at airports defending refugees, at government offices demanding health care protection. We’re out at bus stops and train stations. We’re crossing streets in Times Square.

We deserve to feel secure in all of these surroundings.

Every human life is precious, and it is everyone’s responsibility to protect the lives of those around us. So be aware, love your fellow humans, and step up in an emergency. Your actions could very well save a life.

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