I Was The Disabled Student Left Behind During a Fire Drill

Concordia’s Security Is Failing Disabled Students

“I looked and noticed that the thin metal making up the fire escape looked like swiss cheese, with holes big enough that my crutches could easily get caught in and make me fall.” Graphic Nadine Abdellatif.

I was sitting in room 210 of the Learning Square, listening to a lecture about Isaac Asimov, when the fire alarm went off.

Everyone looked around and wondered if it was real, then very quickly started packing their bags and grabbing their coats, rushing towards the sole staircase in the building, hoping to beat all the other 80-person classrooms rushing out.

Since the Learning Square is a temporary classroom space as it is supposed to make up for the lack of rooms due to construction in the Hall building, there is no elevator, no escalator and absolutely no accessible way to make it up and down the second floor.

Five years may be short in the long run, but that's more time than it’ll take me to get my degree at Concordia. Five years of navigating through inaccessible classrooms is a lifetime for disabled and mobility-reduced students, such as myself. 

Anyone can get injured, anyone can sprain their ankle in the middle of a semester and have to claw their way up a flight of steps in excruciating pain just so they don’t miss their lecture. But elevators and escalators are expensive, and accessibility is a frequent afterthought within Concordia’s budget.

Having sprained my ankle two days before, I grabbed my crutches while my friend shoved my stuff in their backpack because I couldn’t carry anything myself. I waited until the classroom had cleared out. I was terrified, knowing it had taken me a good three minutes just to get up the stairs initially. I was nearly trampled by running students as I left the classroom and walked down the hall.  Lights and sirens were blaring and security was yelling at students to hurry up and get out, lying about there being smoke. This chaos was all for a drill, but at the time I didn’t know that.

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I was terrified that I was caught in the middle of a crowd and now, I was worried there was an actual fire. A security guard in the back yelled at students to turn around and use the fire escape. Once again, I was caught in a wave of people going the opposite direction, desperately trying not to fall over or get trapped.       

Once I finally got to the fire escape, the security guard told me to go down. I looked and noticed that the thin metal making up the fire escape looked like swiss cheese, with holes big enough that my crutches could easily get caught in and make me fall. The steps were unbelievably narrow and tight, leaving no room for me to navigate properly. 

I refused, saying I would go back down the regular staircase. I started the slow process of hobbling down the hall again, feeling absolutely panicked, only for him to inform me that it was actually just a drill and there was no smoke. He then said to just stay there for a few minutes. My friend, a lifesaver, grabbed me a chair as we waited to be told what to do.

Another security guard came up to me and told me that normally, they have a transfer chair, something they could put me on to get me downstairs safely. I asked if she could go get one so I could get out of the building. She disappeared, eventually telling me she didn’t know where the transfer chair was, or if the building was even equipped with one.

I asked her what I would do in a real emergency—how would I get out? She motioned that she’d carry me or throw me over her shoulder, then laughed and said it would be fine. It didn’t feel fine. Having my safety be a joke did not feel fine in that moment, coming down from a near panic attack because of the adrenaline and fear that I was going to be trapped in a smoking building.        

Eventually, she went on her walkie-talkie and said they had someone with reduced mobility on the second floor, and five minutes later, told her supervisor over the walkie-talkie that she’d safely evacuated me. She winked at me and walked away, leaving me to feel completely and utterly helpless. 

A fire drill is a practice, it’s supposed to be a rehearsal so everyone knows what to do in case of an actual emergency. I don’t feel prepared for a fire, I don't know what I would do, and I certainly don’t feel like I would be in capable hands. A team who lies about getting a student out safely just to speed up a test, that jokes about missing mobility aid and that fails to protect me does not make me feel safe on campus.

My friend and I eventually called the security guard back and asked if she could get actual answers about what I should do in a real emergency. I will be on crutches for the next few weeks, and given how frequently I rely on mobility aids as a disabled student, I want to know how to protect myself. She said she’d get us some information and walked downstairs. Fifteen minutes later, my friend and I were still upstairs, alone in an evacuated building, as students slowly started coming back in for the remainder of their classes. Exhausted, frustrated and furious, we slowly made our way back down the stairs only to pass the security team going over the details of the fire drill and calling it a success. It was not a success. Leaving a vulnerable student alone without any plan of escape cannot, by any rational measure, be considered a success.

Concordia’s lack of accessibility is a constant annoyance and hurdle to my education and that of so many others, but the absolute bare minimum is feeling safe within the school buildings where I go to learn and feel safe, not one where my well-being is jeopardized.

Concordia’s security team made me feel terrified and as though I was a burden. They made me feel like my safety couldn’t be guaranteed. They handled the situation with complete incompetence and when I asked what I should do in a real emergency, how I would safely leave the building in a real fire, they shrugged and said “we’ll get back to you,” but never did. 

To this day, I just have to hope someone can either carry me out, find a wheelchair or just wait until the staircases are empty as the hallways slowly fill with smoke so that maybe I can make my way down before I’m injured, burnt or worse. The thought terrifies me. I’m scared that being on crutches is going to lead to something awful, and the one thing that the school implements to prepare for these events and protect us as students has completely failed me.

This article originally appeared in Volume 43, Issue 6, published November 8, 2022.