University of Wisconsin–Madison

Self-Advocacy in an Emergency

Important factors in surviving an emergency situation are the ability to think clearly, act quickly, remain calm and take actions that are safe, reasonable and productive. Laws governing emergency evacuation procedures for individuals with disabilities are pivotal for safeguarding the potential for safe and accident-free outcomes. However, successful resolutions are ultimately determined by the actions of the individual.

A Scenario

Imagine the following scenario: Chris, a wheelchair-user, is on the second floor of a four-story building in which a fire has originated on the top floor. Smoke swarms through the building, alarms ring, sprinklers douse the hallways. Suddenly, confusion sets in, people begin to panic and within minutes an atmosphere of hysteria pervades the second floor.

Chris, knowing the elevators are inoperative and that emergency personnel may or may not arrive in a timely fashion, leaves the office and heads for the stairway. Chris identifies two hardy and ambulatory individuals about to descend the stairwell and assertively, politely and clearly says, “Excuse me, the elevators are out and I’m unable to get down the stairs by myself, can you please help me?”

After getting their agreement to assist, Chris continues, “There’s a sitting chair with arms just inside that office to your right, please bring it here.”

Once the chair arrives, Chris succinctly instructs the assistants. “Ok, one of you get on each side of me, put one arm under my legs and lock hands with each other. Take your other arm and put around my back, holding me firm yet gently. Now, slowly pick me up and lightly place me in the chair with my bottom about six inches from the back. Take off your belt and attach it like a seat belt around my waist and the chair. Now, while straddling the side, each you grasp the front leg of the chair with one hand and the back of the arm of the chair with the other hand. Slightly lean the chair back about 30 degrees and taking one step at a time begin to go down the stairs.”

In this scenario, Chris evacuates the burning building unscathed and everyone lives happily ever after.

Several ingredients of effective self-advocacy are demonstrated in this scenario and should be given serious consideration by everyone, regardless of ability.

Preparation

As emphasized in all emergency “preparedness” materials, the predominant element is thinking ahead and deciding what actions to take should a crisis emerge.

Thinking Clearly, Acting Quickly

Disasters, or other occurrences of distress and destruction, are intense, unpredictable and chaotic. Thinking clearly and acting decisively are critically important. Chris deliberately calculated a plan of action and implemented it immediately upon recognizing the seriousness of the situation. As with all emergencies, people escape swiftly and generally without regard for others. Chris would have been left alone on the second floor waiting for the rescue personnel if clear thinking and immediate action hadn’t occurred.

Proceeding with Confidence and Determination

Speaking in a clear, calm voice that is resonant, not thunderous; looking people directly in the eye; positioning yourself strategically so as not to be avoided; and acting as if you actually know what you are doing all serve to persuade unsuspecting evacuees to assist you.

Taking Risks, Setting Limits

Most likely, Chris did not follow standard emergency evacuation procedures by soliciting assistance. Genuine speculation and risk were taken by acting independently. Different circumstances, for example a tornado warning or news of a nearby chemical spill, might not have prompted Chris to react assertively. Having strangers transfer Chris to a sitting chair and then lugging it down two flights of stairs suggests impending danger. Chris made a calculated decision, based upon an assessment of the situation, knowledge of evacuation procedures and a conjecture regarding the likelihood of survival, that acting self-reliantly was a risk worth taking.

Independence versus Interdependence

No individual is ever indisputably independent. All of us are “interdependent” on a vast array of means and resources to exist. However, because the goal of “independent living” has endured within the disability community there is concern that this is interpreted as an expectation that an individual is self-sustaining. In actuality, a more practical and authentic goal is one of self-determination and interdependence. It is more important that individuals have the right and ability to make decisions for themselves (self-determination) than it is for them to actually perform tasks autonomously (independently). Thus, it is meaningful that people understand that asking for assistance to escape a burning building is a heroic use of self-determination and interdependence on available resource, and not dependence or enslavement to others.

Self-advocacy

Advocacy is the act of speaking in favor of, recommending, arguing for a cause, supporting or defending. Self-advocacy is achieving this for oneself. Understanding your own values, needs and abilities; learning to articulate clearly, recognizing your boundaries for risk and limits, and bearing the consequences of inaction all serve to increase and individuals capability of becoming an effective self-advocate.

Safety for Everyone

The ultimate goal of an emergency evacuation procedure is to ensure the safety and well being of all people involved. Through a conscientious evaluation and exploration into potential methods of survival during an emergency or disaster, an individual is best prepared to make cogent and decisive choices. Though clearly not the only available option, becoming an influential self-advocate will be of unequivocal benefit during a crisis.