The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

Meeting of October 25, 2005, Washington D.C. on Emergency Preparedness and Individuals with Disabilities:
Is the Workplace Ready?

Remarks of Michael Hingson, Director of National Public Affairs:
Guide Dogs for the Blind, Inc.

I am submitting this written testimony to supplement oral comments I will deliver at the open meeting of the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Tuesday, October 25, 2005. My comments will address the issues raised by the subject of this meeting, "Emergency Preparedness and Individuals with Disabilities: Is the Workplace Ready?"

My name is Michael Hingson. I am 55 years of age. I have been totally blind my entire life.

Most of my professional working life has been spent employed in the field of high technology computer sales. I have held positions ranging from sales representative through president and owner of a computer sales and service company. My most recent position in the computer industry was that of Mid Atlantic Manager for Quantum Corporation. Our Mid Atlantic offices were located in Suite 7827 on the 78th floor of Tower One of the World Trade Center in New York City. I was in my office when our building was attacked on September 11, 2001. I survived because I was as prepared as I could be to handle emergencies in my office. I will discuss this more later.

In both my private and professional life I have always been acutely aware of the need for safety preparedness. For me this awareness began in my childhood years as my family regularly discussed our emergency preparedness plans in our home in Palmdale California. Not only did we discuss issues such as fire safety, but we also talked about how and where to evacuate in case of an earthquake as we resided on the San Andres fault.

In my professional life I have been responsible for participating in as well as preparing many company emergency and safety procedures.

My comments here will address issues relating primarily to blind persons and emergency preparedness.

As the title of this hearing implies “preparedness” is the most important thing any employer and employee can do to make a working environment as safe as possible for everyone. I do not believe there are any special magic ways to make a blind person safer than those, which should be used to keep non-blind workers safe. What is a bit different is how those techniques are offered to blind people.

Let me begin by setting a benchmark for approaching blindness in our discussions. Blindness is not the real handicap blind persons face. Rather, the handicap comes from the barriers, attitudes and misconceptions we as blind people have about ourselves, as well as the barriers, incorrect attitudes, and misconceptions sighted people impose on those of us who happen to be blind. Blindness can be reduced to the level of a nuisance with the proper training and preparation.

Likewise, the degree to which any blind person can be considered safe or prepared for emergencies in the workplace depends on how well they prepare themselves and how well they are prepared by others to react in emergency scenarios. Employers should not assume that anyone is prepared for an emergency situation. Employers should put instructional procedures and materials in place to instruct all employees about how to act in any unsafe situation.

I will use my experience at the World Trade Center to illustrate my degree of emergency preparedness. Of course, nothing could have prepared anyone for what happened that day. However, the Port Authority, the operator of the World Trade Center, went to great lengths to insure the Center’s occupants knew what to do and where to go in case of emergencies. Regular fire drills were conducted. Occasional bulletins concerning first aid kits, various safety signs, and the center’s emergency policies were distributed. Finally, regular updates to the emergency policy manual were disseminated providing further reminders of the need to be prepared.

In my office I encouraged my employees to become familiar with the emergency procedures of the building. I made certain my employees knew of scheduled fire drills so they could attend them and thus see first hand what would be required of them should an emergency occur. Since most of the employees of Quantum were normally not in the office, they needed to make special trips into the WTC to participate in drills. I required everyone to participate in one scheduled drill a year.

For my part, the emergency preparedness manuals were not available in Braille or in any electronic form. I did have them read to me. I also made certain I was familiar with the instructions on all posted signs in the hallways. I learned the locations of all stairwells and fire extinguishers.

My philosophy is that I can never be certain who else would be near by in an emergency. I need to be able to move and evacuate independently should an emergency occur and I was alone or the only mobile individual.

Although I use a guide dog, it is my job to know where to go and how to get there; my guide dog "Roselle" is responsible for insuring we walk safely under my direction. To illustrate this, after the aircraft struck our tower in the World Trade Center we needed to walk to the stairwell in order to evacuate the building. If I had merely trained Roselle to find the stairs what would we have done if the stairwell were blocked or in flames? I knew the locations of all three stairwells on our floor as well as how to direct Roselle to each of them from anywhere on the floor. Without that knowledge I would have not been fully prepared to evacuate the building if required to do so.

As a manager at the World Trade Center I had to discover on my own most of what I learned in order to be prepared to handle emergencies. I believe the Port Authority was not as prepared as it could have been to equip me with the knowledge and skills to handle an emergency. I believe this to be true because the Port Authority did not receive the proper education and knowledge to make information available to me. I do not have any negative feeling toward the Authority. Instead I applaud the EEOC on its conducting this meeting to present this issue to employers to help them become more knowledgeable and better equipped to insure that all employees are as prepared as they can be for emergencies in the work place.

Below are my recommendations for making a work place ready for dealing with blind persons and their emergency preparedness. In what follows I refer to blind persons as those who fall under the legal definition of blindness, not just totally blind employees.

  1. Any written manuals, directives or information concerning disaster preparedness or any other emergency procedures should be maintained in an electronic form in such a way so as to make it possible to be transcribed into Braille as well as to be displayed in large print and through a text to speech device such as a screen reader. This should be done when such documents are being prepared, not just when a blind person is hired. Old paper documents should be converted into electronic documents.
  2. New hire blind persons should be made aware of emergency procedures during their first week on the job. Such orientation should include showing the new employees all emergency exits, fire alarms, fire extinguishers, and making them aware of the contents of any posted signs concerning emergency procedures and evacuation. During this orientation equal weight should be given to pointing out all emergency exits and evacuation or fire station meeting places, not just the ones closest to the employee’s work space. Effort should be made to encourage the employees to learn how to travel to any and all emergency stations and exits.
  3. A buddy system should be created to insure that each employee, blind or not, has a designated colleague with whom to work during any emergency or evacuation. It only makes sense that a system of all employees looking out for each other will increase the likelihood that more people can be helped in an emergency situation. Again, the buddy system should not be limited to blind employees as it is important that no person be viewed as a burden to others; singling out one group for any special treatment such as a buddy system will serve to diminish that group in the eyes of its colleagues. Each buddy group should develop a plan of how and where to meet. Buddies could be in the same office or come from near by rooms. A plan should also be created to account for those times when one buddy is elsewhere or absent during an emergency. One suggestion is to have two or three buddy groups check up on each other during an emergency or drill.
  4. Create a method for communicating information verbally in an emergency. When I was evacuating from Tower One we received no information concerning the attack on the second building. As a result, when I finally made my way outside with a colleague we had no idea why there appeared to be some fire high up in the second tower. We attempted to reach my colleague’s car parked in a lot right across from Tower Two. We were 100 yards away from that building when it collapsed. Had we been told of the second attack we would have taken a different direction and we would have not attempted to reach my colleague’s car. Information is crucial. If there is concern about generating panic in a stairwell, (something which might have been considered when determining what to tell us on 9-11), A procedure should be created for disseminating information once people leave the stairs.
  5. Conduct regular emergency evacuation and fire drills. During such exercises determine that all employees including blind employees can locate at least two separate exits. While sighted people can utilize signs to locate stairwells blind people will utilize alternative techniques to know the locations of the exits. It is reasonable to test all employees in some manner to make sure they can quickly locate appropriate exits. Here again, do not limit evaluation to blind employees.
  6. Show blind employees the locations of first aid kits. Also blind employees should familiarize themselves with the contents of those kits. If necessary bottles in said kits should be given Braille and large print labels.

The above are basic recommendations, which should be followed for all employees. Blind employees should be encouraged to help the instructional process by telling the employer how best to provide information to them, Braille, large print, electronic and so on. The workplace can be as safe for blind persons as sighted ones. Safety comes mostly from providing appropriate information and instruction. I look forward to the outcome of this meeting. Should I be able to assist in the deliberations and work of the commission please do not hesitate to call on me.

Michael Hingson
Director of National Public Affairs
Guide Dogs for the Blind, Inc.
350 Los Ranchitos Rd.
San Rafael, CA 94903
(415) 492-4177

This page was last modified on October 25, 2005.

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