Illustration by Susan G. firstname.lastname@example.org
My name is Vincent. I am a guide dog for my mistress Allison. We live in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. with her mother and grandmother. A few metro stops from her new office digs in downtown DC.
Last week, two weeks in our new office building, Allison almost ran into a wall. Okay, so I stopped before we got to the wall, you see, I can see and so was able to prevent what could have resulted in injury to my mistress. Adding insult to injury, we had asked for directions to an office on the same floor and were deliberately given wrong information. This was not the first time we'd gotten bum information. And, it wouldn't be the last.
At home that weekend, my mistress was commiserating with her mother about our problems at work while I was enjoying my favorite pastime, napping in the sunny yard. I am getting old so I've been told.
Allison's mother reminded her of the conference about fire safety planning in office buildings and employees with disabilities and said, "Didn't you say that you'd met a lady, Soleena, who said you could call her anytime?"
That same afternoon Allison called Soleena. "Of course, I would be very pleased to assist … Let’s get together next Friday for lunch." Fridays, Soleena's day to be in DC.
What if someone in the new offices found out the she had asked for assistance? Could be trouble for Allison.
So it was to be that Soleena would be Allison's 'new best friend', just meeting for lunch in the new cafeteria.
I digress, in addition to napping, checking out the new menus is my other favorite pastime. So, my guiding Allison takes me very close to the lunch tables where my nose ever so subtly glides over the tables' edge. Allison cannot see that the diners seemed displeased with my investigations.
To observe the office setup, the workplace and to meet with the building manager, Ham, about maybe assisting in the evacuation training. By the way, the manager had told Allison that he, himself had a 'hidden' disability and had a particular interest in learning more about the training possibilities for the building occupants.
And, in the course of things, Soleena got to talk with Ham and was invited to sit in on a training session the next Friday.
- Next month
Soleena called Allison at home and reported: "We have several challenges to address. I list them not necessarily in order of importance: the training plan, committee composition/members, administrations' concerns about time budgeting and also, their seeming lack of interest in emergency evacuation training, specifically, for the many employees with disabilities." Soleena had learned that this particular federal agency had the highest ratio of employees with disabilities.”
Over the next few weeks, a plan of attack was developed by Ham and Soleena. First step was to win over the administration. An early morning meeting conducted in the penthouse lounge, coffee and delicious breakfast rolls served to the senior staff. Soleena showed slides she had taken of the interior of the exit stairways, ending at the street level exit doors. This was a test to see if they could identify the location of the stairs and which street it exited to. Sheets of paper and pens were distributed. Soleena had instructed Ham not to take the test. Just see if he could mentally identify the locations.
None of the senior staff had any correct answers. How could they, as none had used the stairs to exit the building and even if they had, there were no stairway identifying markings.
The upshot of this meeting was that time was to be allotted to the training as specified by their building manager, Ham.
Two committees were organized, one comprised of volunteers representative of the employees with disabilities and one of mid-level supervisory staff who also served on the safety committee. The meetings took place over the next couple of months.
Recommendations made by the disability representatives included, conducting multiple evacuation drills with walks through each of the stairway towers. This to replace the practice of having all of the employees with disabilities proceed to the elevator lobbies and wait with folks with mobility limitations to be 'rescued' by the fire department. All seemed to be going very well.
My mistress Allison is called into her boss's office and was informed by risk management that it would be too dangerous for 'the dog' to be allowed to evacuate down the stairs with all of the other employees. "What if the dog should become scared and bite someone? We could be sued."
Did I mention that my mistress and a good many of the other employees are attorneys? My omission.
That same evening Allison calls Soleena and relates the afternoon meeting. Soleena told her what she had oft advised to others, "Call the fire department that has jurisdiction for your office building and ask to meet with their chief education officer."
So, the next week my mistress and I had that meeting. We walked over to the fire house. Folding chairs had been set up is small circle outside where the fire trucks are parked. I sat beside the Chief who was sitting next to my mistress. She related the history of our training and then told the Chief that she could not imagine leaving me behind in the office while she left the office building without me. The Chief said to Allison, "Well, there is always the possibility that Vincent could get disoriented and go berserk!"
Illustration by Susan G. email@example.com
When I heard the Chief's worried tone of voice I perked up my ears, lifted my head, placed my chin on his knees, rolled my eyes up to his face and uttered a quite audible sigh.
Everyone was looking at Chief and Allison. The Chief was looking down at me and then smiled and he said, "Well, maybe I am being a little rash, you see I did not really understand, about the role of your guide dog, Vincent." That seemed to do the trick.
My mistress learned the next week, as a result of our meeting at the fire house, that the fire department had contacted the administration to say that the policy of leaving the 'dog' in the building in the event of an emergency evacuation should be reversed!
These events took place early in the1980's, just a few years after the passing of the Rehabilitation Act and the beginning of the big push to end the discrimination against the job applicants with disabilities.
What Vincent could not have known about or comprehended was the dissension in the ranks of the employees. The unpleasantness of the workplace atmosphere was a display of disapproval by the 'old' staff of what they considered on excessive influx of new hires of people with disabilities.
Vincent related the story of Allison's being given the misdirection. That trick was just one of many bad faith behaviors on the part of the disgruntled staff.
The development of the emergency preparedness, evacuation procedures was ostensibly just that. In the process of this planning, the two factions were brought together. The working groups got to know each other and happily, worked well together.
After the meeting with the Fire Prevention Chief, the Administration rescinded the prohibition of the service animals' participation in the evacuation drill (planning).
Edwina Juillet has been advocating, since the mid-seventies, for increased access to emergency evacuation systems for persons with disabilities through research, codes/standards, training, publications and coalition building. She is known as the co-founder the National Task Force on Fire and Life Safety for People with Disabilities, (in 1978).
llustrations by Susan G. firstname.lastname@example.org