It's just outside my door. The gathering place. The place where those of us with disabilities are to go in a crisis. Should there be a fire, an earthquake, a disaster of any kind, it is where we who move differently, who move mechanically, who move assisted, are to wait. I have been aware of this place, and places like it, for my entire existence as a person with a disability. On moving in to my apartment, a high rise, I'm told about it as I sign the lease. I'm smiled at. People are pleased that there is a plan. People want me to be grateful for the plan. Grateful that I have been thought about. But I haven't
9/11 taught me that.
We learn lessons from living. If we pay attention to the world around us, to the experience of others, our consciousness shifts. 9/11 shifted the consciousness of millions. People all the world over began to ask new questions about old problems. Personal safety, once assumed, was now a major concern. I was on a flight out of Toronto on the first day the skies were opened to air travel after 9/11 had closed them. I always sit at the back of the plane - airplanes don't back into mountains I figure - and I listened as the flight attendants readied the galley for flight, as they spoke nervously about being back in the air. I sat worried while they, just before they were asked to take their seats for the takeoff, held on to each other and prayed.
I saw discussions of preparedness on television. Questions about emergency planning were asked. Seldom did I hear mention of those in the twin towers with disabilities. Those that went to the 'gathering place' to await rescue and, to a one died. There was, of course, the heroic story of the guy with the guide dog that was guided to safety by the dog's training and instinct. To many he came to represent those with disabilities. He became the guy who escaped. Few spoke about those, waiting, gathered in the right spot following the wrong plan. Few mentioned the trust that had been given over by those with disabilities to those who planned for their well being.
I learned from this.
I really learned.
There are things you don't give to others. There are things that only you know about yourself and your abilities. I do not wish to simply wait while the world crashes around my shoulders, while flames leap up the sides of my wheelchair, while others who would come don't - or worse, die attempting to save me. When renting we rented an apartment that was exactly as high as I can make it down stairs. As long as someone is beside me. As long as someone holds my arm. I can make it to the ground. I have a light folding chair, one that can be easily carried. It can go with me too. At work, I know which stairwell I can negotiate most quickly. And, yes, I have practiced, I can get down them myself. My chair can come with me, I only use the light one at work.
9/11 taught me something. It taught me that my world can change in an instant. That I need to take responsibility for myself. It taught me that 'plans' for me or 'plans' about me are no where near as good as plans I make for myself. It also taught me that the deaths of those with disabilities aren't taken quite as seriously as those without. No other minority group was exterminated in those attacks to the percentage that those with disabilities were. None. Yet, somehow, they aren't talked about. Their stories will not be told ... their lives not really remembered. Except by those who loved them. And those, like me, who feel a kinship with them. Those like me who vow to them to have learned by the lives they lived - lives of contribution, lives of employment, lives of purpose and by how they died - trusting in a plan that could never work.
It's ten years after 9/11 and I still, in memory of those who gathered only to die, check out exits in every building I enter, in every place that I go. I want, like they did, to live. I want like they did, to trust. But I can't. I won't. Never again, I have learned, begins with me.