I really enjoyed my time at Johnston Senior High School, and I've got a lot of Panther pride. But there are a few stories that stand out in my mind as examples that illustrate the daily struggles I had to go through. These experiences had a big impact on me, and they helped to inspire and motivate me to start this project.
Eating Lunch by Myself
Eating in the school cafeteria was difficult, because it was only accessible by chair lift. Sometimes I would try the lift and it would work fine, taking about 10 minutes to get there. But students were only allotted 20 minutes to eat, so there goes my half of my lunch. Other times the lift wouldn't work at all, and I would have to eat by myself in an empty classroom.
Worse still, sometimes it would initially work and then stall, leaving me stranded half-way up the stairs. Not only was this embarrassing, watching all the other students coming and going to lunch, walking by me on the stairs, staring at me. But I would also be stuck there until they could locate a janitor to try and fix it. Depending on how long it took, I might have to miss class time in order to eat lunch. For my first two years, I tried to eat lunch in the cafeteria, frequently enduring these type of difficulties. During my junior and senior years, the lift was so inconsistent and frustrating that I didn't even bother trying.
Missing Out on Gym Class
The same was true about gym class — I could only access by chair lift. When the lift wasn't working, there was a handicap accessible entrance on the opposite side of the building. But in order to get there, I would have to travel down the hallway, out the front entrance, onto the sidewalk, down the block, turn the corner, and enter the ramp there. That's where the bottom of the lift would have taken me, if it were functioning properly.
Gym class lasted 45 minutes (much longer than lunch), and it would take me 10 minutes just to get there using the alternative entrance, assuming the weather was good. But if the weather was bad (snow, pouring rain, etc.) and the lift wasn't working, the gym teacher would tell me to not bother coming to class. She knew I would have to put on all my extra clothes, trudge through the uncomfortable conditions that made it difficult or unsafe in my chair, and then take all my extra clothes off again when I arrive. The few times I braved this trek, it took me at least 20 minutes total, and trying to maneuver in the snow or ice was a legitimately dangerous endeavor. Rain was easier to maneuver in than snow, but I would still have to move quickly, because too much moisture could make my chair short out and become completely immobile.
In both instances — being separated for lunch and missing out on gym class — I felt excluded, like I wasn't a "regular" student, and that I didn't fit in or belong.
Worrying About How to Escape During a Fire Drill
My experience dealing with fire drills probably affected me more than any other. There were two different procedures: one for all the other students, and then one for me. If there was a fire drill while I was on the first floor, there wouldn't be a problem — I could just drive out of the building using the ramp. If, however, I happened to be on second floor when the alarm sounded, there were no accessible exits, only an elevator and lifts that couldn't be operated in an emergency. While other students exited the building by the stairs, the school administrators told me to simply wait next to a staircase until someone arrived to "rescue" me. I have to assume the rescue help would physically pick me up out of my chair and then leave it behind, but administrators never told me what being "rescued" actually means. I'm glad I never had to find out.
When you think about fires, it's a life and death situation. In that moment, I thought, "What if this building were really burning now? What should I do? Should I run for the nearest exit and try to get myself out? Or should I do what they say, and wait for someone to rescue me?" I have a one-on-one aid with me at all times, but what if they were on lunch break, in the bathroom, or out of the building? Everybody says they would stay by my side in an emergency, but no one knows how they will react in the heat of the moment. I would want to run out of the building, too, if I were them. If there were to be an actual fire, I would be afraid for my life.
When I had to deal with the serious, potentially life threatening situation of a fire, I felt trapped, which in turn made me feel helpless.
Footnote: I want to point out that I am grateful and impressed by Johnston's efforts to improve accessibility. However, I was there for four years — and there were other students in wheelchairs before me — but to my knowledge, the lifts are still experiencing the same intermittent, recurring issues today. I don't personally hold this against Johnston Senior High School, but I am frustrated that after all this time, the lift still has not been reliably fixed. As for the fire drills, I don't know what the solution is, but I think administrators should inform students like myself better about emergency procedures. That would have at least made me feel a little bit less helpless and more at-ease in those difficult situations.