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My Accidental Contribution to Accessibility
Two months ago, I graduated with the 55th class of DSHS. It is a school with a remarkably inclusive spirit, which compensated for the inconveniences of a structure built in the early Cold War era. Designed for 1300 students originally, the school’s very hallways are sometimes converted into classrooms to accommodate the close to 2000 who attend these days. Leaky hot water pipes that no one knows the mapping of now turn some floor areas into griddles. Everyone knows there is asbestos in the ceiling, cracks in the weary old walls. Over my sophomore winter vacation a busted water pipe on the second floor ruined an entire computer lab on the first. The two elevators that everyone who cannot use the stairs, either temporarily or ever, is obliged to use have signs posted inside reading, “FOR FREIGHT ONLY.” The signs are metal and are never removed. The custodians avoid these elevators when possible as animals avoid hunters’ traps.
All four years of my high school life, I pushed a cart before me through the halls, instead of using a backpack. Physical strain on my back was avoided and I had help to keep my balance in crowded settings this way. Plus people often moved out of my way when they wouldn’t move for anyone else. One drawback to it was that I had to use those elevators, which took fully thirty seconds—I timed it often—to move up or down one story. My dependence on the elevator was accommodated though, and my tardies were never recorded.
About two weeks before graduation, having arrived at school late after a scholarship award ceremony, I stepped into the elevator trying to get to the journalism room. The door cranked shut, the motor started. Then there was a groan somewhere in the machinery that I knew boded no good. Next, a loud clank and then silence.
I pushed the manual open door button. Absolutely nothing happened. Well, as long as my cell phone worked...
“I need some help. Elevator’s stuck.” I held my breath as I sent the message to two of the security guards, whose numbers I had gotten specifically in case this situation should arise. I had tried to text therapists from inside this elevator before and had the signal fail on me.
The message went through, but that did not mean that the security guards had their phones on, or that they still had my number stored in theirs, or that they were even here at school today. I thought back to the last time the elevator had trapped me inside. It happened before I had a cell phone. I shudder to think what I would have done then had there not just happened to be someone else riding the elevator that day, someone who could voice into the elevator’s speaker phone to explain what had happened. But even after we’d reached someone that way, my fellow passenger/prisoner had banged on the door and hollered to attract someone’s attention. I began to bang on the door. I stopped after a few bangs and listened. I started up again only when I thought I heard someone passing by.
“Vanessa, is that you in there?” Security Guard James called through the door.
I guess you’ll know when the only answer you get asking that way is banging.
“Are you okay?”
How am I supposed to answer that definitively with my banging?
“Hang tight, we’ll get you out. Just hold on.”
Contact established, I wasn’t worried. No sense pacing the floor over a certainty. The elevator’s light was still on—(I have ridden in it when there was no light but absolutely pitch dark, so you can’t see your own hand an inch from your nose. Now that’s a little spooky!)—and I had some reading I needed to finish for English. So I took out my book and started on it.
Didn’t get a whole lot of reading done, though the adventure lasted about twenty minutes. Through the door I could hear the security guards conferring with one of the office ladies about how to communicate with me. Their phones had received my message but apparently had no plan under which they could text me back. Then Assistant Principal Mr. Wagner, a friend of mine and the school’s second-in-command, was on the scene. Mrs. Kevinson, the activities secretary, told me through the door to text John my number so Mr. Wagner could have it. James already had a message from me, but I couldn’t very well remind them of that. I obeyed therefore, but then Mr. Wagner began giving me his number from outside the door.
Pounding sounds started as I was entering the number. I recognized the noise from the last time I’d been trapped and knew that the two head custodians had been set scrambling to free me. But now I lost the number.
“Text Mr. Wagner, Vanessa,” Mrs. Kevinson urged me, alarm in her voice. If I was just patient and alert enough to catch it next time, they’d read me the number again, probably. They did, and I said in answer to a question that had been repeated about ten times, “I’m okay.”
“Is there a light on?” they wanted to know.
“Are you getting warm?”
“Do you want a snack?”
I laughed at that. The door is what’s gone haywire; how are you proposing to get a snack to me, even if I do want one? Anyway, it’s only eight-thirty in the morning.
“I’m fine. But, was there an out-of-order sign that I didn’t pay attention to?”
They seemed to take that as a joke, and replied, “Can’t you read?”
My counselor texted me next, from his office, I guess. News travels fast! “Stuck? Are you okay?”
“cool as cucumber since successful alert,” I answered.
Outside, Mr. Wagner was speaking on a phone or walkie-talkie, deliberately, a measure of anger discernable in his voice, as if the person he spoke to was not understanding the situation: “We have a student with cerebral palsy stuck in an elevator. We need to get her out as soon as possible.”
Now why mention the cerebral palsy at this time? Wouldn’t you need to get any student out as soon as possible? I was slightly amused.
Presently I was informed, “Fire department’s on their way, Vanessa.”
Fire department?! This was a fine excitement to be the cause of! Oh well, it would soon be over.
I read a couple of pages. Then the door opened to reveal three black-uniformed fireman prying it open with crowbars, and about eight staff members waiting behind them, watching anxiously. I saw more watching down the hall when I stepped out. They looked about ready to cheer when I smiled, then the cheer turned to a laugh as they caught sight of the book in my hand.
I laughed at their laughing, and at their calling me the hero when I was the one who had to be rescued. Then, with a little hesitation, I went to the other elevator. The security guard shook his head at me and called me brave, but I still had to get upstairs somehow, and for both elevators to break down on the same day would be too much of a coincidence, even at old DSHS.
At the senior class meeting concerning the senior party an hour later, I found Mr. Wagner still laughing about it. So amused was he that he told me to stand up, had the whole class applaud me—which they did even before he gave them a reason—and proceeded to relate the tale to them all. I refused to stay standing as he finished. Of all things to be highlighted for, inadvertently getting stuck in a daily-ridden elevator! The class laughed as the staff members had when he mentioned the book, and clapped again.
Thankfully, beginning in 2013, students of DSHS will not be as likely to face the problem of getting stuck in elevators as they are currently. After trying for four years, a bond was passed in 2009 for the construction of a completely new, state-of-the-art school building.
However, due to the recent nationwide recession, the local school district is concerned about funding, trying to scrimp and save everywhere they can see a way. A little later I heard that the new school plans provided for only one elevator. After graduation I returned on a visit to find out if this rumor was true, to put in my two cents if it was.
I spoke to a custodian friend of mine, saying I hoped it wasn’t true, else what were people dependent on an elevator to get to upstairs classes supposed to do if that one elevator broke down?
“There was going to be only one elevator,” he answered. “We fought it. We custodians didn’t like that, and we were fighting it. Now there’s going to be two, because of what happened last week, with your getting stuck in it. So, you actually helped us out by getting stuck. I’m going to name that South side elevator for you, going to put “Vanessa” on a nice bronze plaque.”
I laughed at this proposal, but said, “Glad something good was accomplished by my getting stuck, then!”