Legally Speaking (Insight on the Issues)

Make it Right

Imagine you are a student sitting in class when the fire alarm suddenly goes off. You need to get out of the building, but what if the classroom is on the second floor and you have physical limitations that require you to attend classes in a wheelchair? Cassidy is a student with both cerebellar atrophy and epilepsy. She spends most of her time in a wheelchair and depends on others for help with all of her daily activities. Like many people with disabilities, she is unable to navigate the physical environment in the event of an emergency. She is not able to exit the second floor of her building on her own and must have immediate assistance to evacuate during an emergency.

The current written emergency plan at Cassidy’s school calls for her to shelter in place on a stairwell landing with a paraprofessional or employee until first responders can evacuate her. But what if that other person feels that he or she must abandon her? And how will the first responders know where to find her?

These are just two of the issues that cause this plan to be “unacceptable,” and considered by some to be a violation of Cassidy’s rights under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) and IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).

Unfortunately, Cassidy isn’t the only student living with this type of situation. While many jurisdictions have comprehensive evacuation and emergency plans that include immediate evacuation procedures for students with disabilities, the majority, at this time, do not. It is a situation that needs to change.

The Scope of the Issue

Sid Wolinsky, co-founder and managing director of Disability Rights Advocates, a nonprofit disability rights legal center, says this is an issue that goes beyond just the school and college facility arena. “There are a number of lawsuits around the country regarding the failure of municipalities to adequately take into account the needs of individuals with disabilities when they create disaster or emergency plans, ” he reports.

In 2017, the Maryland General Assembly addressed this need by enacting House Bill 1061—Education—Emergency and Evacuation Plans—Individuals with Disabilities. The legislation requires an update to the state’s emergency evacuation policies and procedures to ensure that the needs of persons with disabilities in public school buildings are accommodated. The Maryland State Department of Education is now requiring local school systems to revise their policies by July 1, 2018 to ensure the accommodation, safeguarding, and evacuation of students, staff, and visitors with disabilities.

“We welcome the Maryland statute,” Wolinsky says, “we know from our experience that you must have specific, individual plans for people with disabilities. After all, in most disasters or emergencies, whether it is fire, an active shooter, or a situation when there may be toxic gas, the top priority is to ‘get out of Dodge.’ The problem is, a person with a mobility or intellectual or sensory disability, like deafness or blindness, may not be in a position in which they can hear the warning or follow an evacuation route, so specific individual plans are needed.”

Disaster Preparedness

Natural occurrences, such as floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, fires, and even something as minor as power outages can create the need for evacuations.

What, specifically, do you need to assist people with disabilities in an educational setting? Wolinsky says there isn’t a single answer. “You need multiple things. First, you need an effective way of communicating with those who have sensory or intellectual disabilities so they can understand what they must do.

“Second, you then need a way of moving or evacuating them. In the cases where you have stairs, that involves devices like evacuation chairs. The device needs to be immediately available and, also as important, you need someone who is not disabled to assist the individuals during the evacuation. Keep in mind that these people need to be trained on how to use the devices,” he adds.

“Disasters are unplanned,” Wolinsky says. “Asking an individual to wait for help to come help them evacuate is unacceptable. It may be too late.”

He says there must be an evacuation plan for that specific individual, taking into consideration the specific disability. And there needs to be a buddy system in place so that this person has immediate assistance when there is an emergency.

Wolinsky says this type of plan has been a federal requirement in England for a number of years, and it can and has been argued that it is required under the Individual Education Program (IEP) that is part of our federal statutes.

To ensure everyone’s safety, regular audits of emergency evacuation plans should occur. You can find one example of a checklist that could be useful by selecting the white paper titled “College Emergency Evacuations: How educated are you?” housed under the Resource Center on our website (

This article originally appeared in the College Planning & Management March 2018 issue of Spaces4Learning.