Grocery list in hand, I sat on the bench by the door to tie my shoes. My phone was open next to me alongside my car keys. “Active shooter at Table Mesa King Soopers. Stay away.” A friend from the neighborhood started posting to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. “I’m in my car, trying to get out. I can hear gunshots. OMG!”
Hours later, staying safe at home, we heard that the lone young man killed ten people. He killed my neighbors, young employees, and a 52-year old woman with disabilities who had worked at that specific King Soopers in Boulder, Colorado, for 30 years. There were other employees with disabilities working there. There were regular customers with disabilities who frequented the store. A young, blind woman shops there with her popular guide dog and has for many years. My daughter with disabilities shops there. What if they had been in the store?
While we can’t prepare for everything, we can prepare for much more than many of us do. I survived (as did my house) the 1989 San Francisco earthquake that knocked down freeways and shook fans during the World Series. I was able to stay in my home as firefighters dealt with ablaze in the foothills I could see from my window. But, living through something is not the same as being prepared to handle emergencies.
After the King Sooper shooting, I went through a list of things to do for my young adult daughter, who has an intellectual disability. Like many of her peers, she had no idea she could enter the back of the store or go up to the break room in an emergency. She didn’t know that those were options, and I realized I hadn’t done enough to prepare her to be confident moving around her community.
I work for a local school district with families who have children with disabilities. One mom came to me asking for help getting the school to develop a safety plan for her daughter, who is non-verbal and needs assistance pushing her wheelchair. “They don’t have a plan for how to protect her in an emergency. What can I do?” She wasn’t the only student who needed to be prepared.
We made a list of considerations for creating a safety plan for students with disabilities. We wanted to address situations such as:
- Limited mobility (no stairs or steps)
- Unlikely to remain quiet
- Unaware of personal options
- Triggered by alarms, first responders, weapons, or noise
- Past trauma creating unpredictable behavior
Then we looked at tools and strategies to mitigate the identified situations, which included:
- Practice using picture cards and social stories to give visual cues for what to expect and how to behave.
- In schools, stores, libraries-places the person frequents-walk through and look at emergency exits and employee-only areas.
- Create a calming box/basket with earplugs, fidgets, stuffies, favorite toys, lollipops (to help with staying quiet), gum, or other safe, preferred, chewy foods.
- Involve staff and peers in making a plan for how to move a person with limited mobility to safe spaces (have spaces identified on different floors and buildings).
- Attach an ID card to shoes or wrist in case of separation.
- Register with local police to share that a person with disabilities resides at your address (if they don’t have a program like that yet, request that they start one).
- Use pre-teaching with role-playing to practice what to do in specific emergencies.
- Practice stay-calm techniques when things are calm. Give choices, then let the person decide which strategies to use (deep breaths, counting, squeezing hands/body,washing hands, self-talk, playing music, reading, drawing, etc.).
- Give lots of specific praise when a person with disabilities uses appropriate strategies, even if it is only a part of what is needed. Then, connect the dots to share why it’s essential.
- Model all of the above in many different settings on an ongoing basis.
We don’t want to forget to prepare our vulnerable friends and neighbors so that we all stay safe. While individuals may not fully understand emergencies or struggle with a safe response, it falls on family, friends, and good neighbors to ensure that they are supported and provided accommodations.
We need to partner with people with disabilities and not decide we know what is best for them. For example, if your children are school-aged, it’s okay to contact the school and ask about their planning. Working together, everyone can trust they have a solid plan, contingencies in place, and a calm approach to people and the situations that arise. ◙
About Anna Stewart
Anna Stewart writes about parenting and disabilities for a wide range of publications, including Empowering Parents, San Jose Mercury News, ESME, and many others over the past few decades.
She works with families living with disabilities, advocates for social justice, and parents two young adults with disabilities.