Students with disabilities more at risk for emergencies 

By Bridget Gum-Egan 

AS I’m sure is true for many, the shelter-in-place issued on April 3 was a terrifying and traumatic experience for me. While I was trying to make myself as small a target as possible in my wheelchair, I cried and texted family and friends that I loved them. As soon as the order was lifted, I sped back to my dorm, locked the door and went on TikTok while waiting for my mother to drive me home.

Throughout my black hole scrolling experience, I stopped on a video from a special education teacher who worked in Nashville, Tennessee, where another school shooting recently occurred. After that shooting, the teacher realized that the students in her class were potentially the most vulnerable to a shooter. Since many of her students have assistive devices, they are naturally the largest and easiest targets, not to mention the fact that since they use these devices, they were unable to run from a shooter quickly, if at all. Some of her students have severe cognitive or intellectual disabilities and the teacher also noted that those students may not know or understand the severity of the situation or react appropriately, so they are also an easy target.

I was shocked. I just sat there as the video continued on an endless loop, repeatedly being bombarded with these scary and depressing facts. Not only have shootings become a normal part of life in the U.S., but I was one of the most at-risk people. At first, I was thankful that I was never in this situation before where it was not a drill, but still, the realization that I was a target completely froze me. I suddenly realized that I had no clue what I was specifically supposed to do as a person with a physical disability if a shooter had come into my class. 

I decided to reach out to my Rider community to see if they had thought of the horrific scenario. Marlene Brockington, a junior communications major, recounted her experience during the shelter-in-place. She had been in class on the third floor of the Fine Arts building, which she mentioned was already small and challenging to maneuver with her power wheelchair. All of the other students immediately huddled against the wall and in a corner, leaving no real room for Brockington to hide. 

“Eventually, the class made enough space for me … I became in the middle of this circle with everyone fitting around me on the floor,” Brockington said. 

Unfortunately, Brockington had previously been in a similar situation at her high school, but said that it never gets easier to deal with. Due to her previous exposure, Brockington has since begun working with Children’s Specialized Hospital to come up with an individualized safety plan in case of a shooter, but ultimately realized that there wasn’t much she could do. When asked about the plan she had gotten from the hospital staff and safety officials, Brockington revealed a disheartening conclusion.

“They [safety officials] always say, ‘oh, well, we never thought about it,’ and they try to come up with an answer,” she said. “Or they’re like, ‘Basically, you’re at the will of a good samaritan.’”

Despite the two of us swapping jokes about being shot immediately or being burned to a crisp during a fire, the reality is serious. After our morbid jokes died out, Brockington turned quiet.

“It makes me feel vulnerable, you know?” she said. “Like, what really are we supposed to do?”

Aaliyah VanCooten, a freshman psychology major, went through a similar experience during the shelter-in-place. VanCooten’s class happened to be canceled that day, and she went to Cranberry’s with some friends to relax and have fun. Unfortunately, neither of those things happened. VanCooten was going through complete shock when she read the text about a potential shooter on campus.

“I was just sitting there and I guess I was just out of it,” she said. “At that point, I kind of disassociated and I wasn’t really focused on what was going on around me.”

Eventually, a worker at Cranberry’s grabbed her by the arm and dragged her behind the counter at Wendy’s. VanCooten, who uses a walker, was behind the counter, but couldn’t sit on the floor, similar to Brockington, making her quite a large target. 

VanCooten was determined to make a difference and decided to become a member of the Student Government Association (SGA). Again, when discussing emergency protocol at SGA meetings, she was met with ambiguous answers and no real solution. VanCooten said she also expressed her frustration with a lack of a plan.

“It obviously does, it feels dehumanizing because it’s like how could you possibly not acknowledge people with disabilities?” she said. 

At VanCooten’s high school, they had an emergency plan and a specific one for students with disabilities that they reviewed each year, so she believes better emergency protocol is possible. 

Both Brockington and VanCooten felt that there is no clear-cut solution they could provide to the university or safety officials at the moment, but agreed that the best first step would be to include people with disabilities in the discussions of emergency planning meetings. That kind of experience is something that is missing from most planning sessions and is something that can’t be expressed by anyone but the individual with the disability.

Neither Brockington, VanCooten nor I knew of any plan or protocol from the university that was specifically for people with disabilities. Being at the will of a good samaritan is not a plan and it is definitely not sufficient or appropriate. This issue at Rider highlights a much larger issue affecting the disabled community. Many abled people consider our quality of life as less than due to our limitations and challenges. As such, it can be seen as not worth it to check the areas of refugees during a fire or helping a person with a disability to safety during a shooting. Unfortunately, the mentality is too often: Why bother saving a person with a disability? Their life isn’t worth it. 

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