On Thursday the 14th of November, I was staying at a hotel in London when the fire alarm sounded. What happened next would spark a nationwide conversation.
I stay at the Premier Inn London St. Pancras frequently as I travel from the north of England to receive treatment at University College London Hospital. It was 9pm and after a tiring day of travelling, I was considering getting cosy in my pyjamas before my hospital appointment in the morning. All of a sudden the fire alarm sounded, so I did what anybody else would do – wheeled myself out of the room, down the hallway to the rescue point and pressed the button to alert staff I’d be waiting on the fourth floor for them to arrive.
Interestingly, nobody seemed to have heard my call. As the rest of the hotel made their way down the stairs, a passer-by kindly offered to alert a staff member on my behalf. I waited 20 minutes for a member of staff to arrive (the Duty Manager), only for her to tell me she didn’t know where the evac chair was. She told me I needn’t worry, it was “probably just somebody smoking in their room”. A fire warden passed us on her way upstairs and asked if we were waiting for someone, before quickly heading off upstairs.
Some fifty minutes later, still stranded in the empty hotel; two fire wardens arrived with an evac chair. One of them asked why I hadn’t tried using the lift. They proceeded to reveal they didn’t know how to use the evac chair, after experimenting on each other and discovering it wasn’t entirely safe to use without prior training.
I was not evacuated from the hotel during the hour-long fire alarm that night. As I sat in my room that night, I contemplated what had happened, and how the end result could have been so tragically different if that had been a real fire. It wasn’t going to be easy to sleep knowing if a fire was to start, I’d have no means of escape.
At a loss for what else to do, I shared my story briefly on Twitter. People from all over the world were outraged by the story, and with over four thousand retweets, I discovered I was far from the only person that this had ever happened to. Newspapers and interviewers all wanted to know how this possibly could have happened… and I wished I had an answer. Why was it that this hotel seemingly didn’t care to train their staff in simple techniques that could save the lives of disabled customers in an emergency? Was I not deserving of equal treatment?
I knew I couldn’t let this lie, accept it as a simple one-off error – too much was at stake. So I began the process of raising awareness of what happened to me and speaking to Premier Inn about the urgent necessity of staff retraining. This is and has never been about blaming, but about seeking to create a change in how accessibility is seen by big companies like the Premier Inn and society as a whole. So many seem to view accessibility as a ‘bonus’ or a nice ‘favour’… but it is a basic, non-negotiable human right. One that in so many cases, simply isn’t being met adequately.
The incident has given me a unique opportunity to tackle poor accessibility and ableism head on. I won’t stop doing everything I can to ensure this doesn’t happen to somebody else in the future and that a universal standard of accessibility is consistently strived for. The uncomfortable truth is disabled people aren’t part of an exclusive club – we are people too, and disability can happen to anybody at any time. It is a matter that should concern all of us.
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23 year old Northerner on a mission to make the world more accessible to everyone! My Instagram account is Instagram.com/ableemily or type in ableemily to your Instagram search tool.