California’s disabled students left behind during emergencies: ‘They just weren’t ready for someone like me’

Ryan Manriquez in his apartment building at UC Berkeley on Jan. 10, 2024. Manriquez spoke about his experience with emergency exits as a person with disabilities at a recent UC Regents meeting, prompting the university system leadership to alter its emergency safety plans. (Photo by Juliana Yamada for CalMatters)

Ryan Manriquez opened the door of his second-floor apartment to a blaring fire alarm. It was September 2023, a few weeks into the school year at UC Berkeley, where he’s a graduate student studying public policy.

Residents descended the staircase, following lighted exit signs. The alarm was getting louder, urging Manriquez to leave. But he couldn’t. Sitting in his power wheelchair, he looked at the only way out of the building for him — an elevator down the hallway, its doors now shut and inoperable. There was no way out for him. 

“When I stepped into the hallway, I just broke down in tears because I knew finally that I wasn’t going to have a place to safely evacuate,” he said.

As a safety measure, elevators shut down to contain a potential fire. Even though the alarm turned out to be false, Manriquez waited four hours before the elevator worked again, causing him to miss his favorite class that afternoon — public policy. 

While California’s public university systems have robust emergency policies and procedures, not all students who are physically disabled have reliable access to equipment to help them evacuate in an emergency. 

Last summer, when Manriquez toured a unit of The Intersection, an off-campus apartment complex the university operates for graduate students, he noticed there were no disability evacuation chairs in the building.  

Evacuation chairs allow people who have a mobility disability to evacuate buildings in emergencies. Some chairs require assistance from two people and are typically folded and stored with other emergency supplies or mounted on the wall. Other evacuation chairs can be battery-powered, allowing physically disabled residents to independently transport themselves up or down stairs.

According to UC Berkeley’s housing policy, evacuation chairs must be provided in all campus buildings. Before he moved in, Manriquez requested a chair from the Berkeley Housing office in July. The evacuation chair was not installed when the school year started the following month. And it still wasn’t installed when the fire alarm went off in September. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 requires at least one accessible exit on every floor, whether it is achieved with an elevator, ramp or lift. The law doesn’t require buildings to have evacuation chairs in multi-storied buildings.  

People with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by disasters and emergencies. Data cited by the Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies shows that disabled people are two to four times as likely to die or be injured in emergencies compared to their non-disabled counterparts.

“It is hard to think that they just weren’t ready for someone like me to enter into one of the top graduate programs in the country,” Manriquez said. 

A few weeks after he was trapped in his apartment building, still without an evacuation chair on his floor, Manriquez shared his experience during public comment at the University of California Board of Regents meeting. After his speech, UC President Michael Drake offered a “personal apology.” Drake also asked campus chancellors to prepare an update on the status of emergency exit accessibility on their campuses at a future meeting.  

“The chancellors are here and I know by the time we come back to the November meeting all the chancellors will be able to ensure nothing like this can happen on any of the campuses in the future,” Drake said. 

The area of refuge at Ryan Manriquez’s apartment building at UC Berkeley on Jan. 10, 2024. (Photo by Juliana Yamada for CalMatters)

Shortly after Manriquez spoke to the regents, in October 2023, two folding manual disability evacuation chairs were installed in his building, one of them on his floor. 

But some students have had to wait longer.

Some students still unequipped

Less than 24 hours after Manriquez’s experience, UC Berkeley student Trisha Nguyen couldn’t leave her second-floor, on-campus apartment during a fire drill.

Like Manriquez, Nguyen was met with shut elevator doors, blocking people from using it. After the drill was over, Nguyen’s apartment mates returned to open the elevator doors, so she could leave in her power wheelchair. 

“All undergraduate students and staff evacuated safely except for my personal care attendant (my mom) and me,” Nguyen wrote to CalMatters. 

Before the incident, Nguyen said UC Berkeley’s University Housing Department failed to give her an evacuation plan that would meet her needs. It wasn’t until after Manriquez shared his experience that the university housing department sent out information on accessible emergency evacuations, Nguyen said. 

“UC Berkeley does not do an excellent job of informing disabled students about emergency protocols for persons with disabilities,” Nguyen said. 

Student housing at UC Berkeley on Aug. 16, 2023. (Photo by Semantha Norris, CalMatters)

The UC Berkeley Office of Disability and Compliance sent out a self-identification questionnaire after her experience asking whether students with disabilities want a consultation to prepare for emergencies. The responses were then shared with building managers and first responders, said UC Berkeley Chief Accessibility Officer Eva Callow. 

Nguyen explained that with folding evacuation chairs, individuals with disabilities are “expected to simply wait” for first responders to assist, “hoping they arrive in time before the fire reaches us.” 

Nguyen wants to see the campus install electric evacuation chairs that allow disabled students like her to evacuate safely without relying on first responders or others. She added that as someone who doesn’t live on the first floor, she understands there might not be a safe route with an electric wheelchair. 

“The current protocol involves us relying on other people to get us out of the building safely,” Nguyen said. “But, I also want to have the resources necessary to take the initiative to evacuate myself.”

In March 2024, nearly six months after the September fire drill, Nguyen said university housing installed a manual evacuation chair on her floor.

Across UC Berkeley’s campus, there are at least 90 places to find an evacuation chair, according to the campus. As of publication, a webpage with exact evacuation chair locations in each building was still under construction.

The UC system does not record how many buildings have evacuation chairs across its 10 campuses, though developing system wide policies on disability accommodations such as emergency exits will be the responsibility of the UC’s new Office of Civil Rights.  

“My office is monitoring the progress of this work on our campuses and we’ll keep the board informed,” Drake said at the November UC Regents meeting. 

Within the office, which officially launched in February, there will be a disability rights office dedicated to improving accessibility at UC campuses. 

In January 2024 the UC’s Systemwide Advisory Workgroup on Students with Disabilities provided updated recommendations to better serve disabled students and staff. Developing a systemwide disability-inclusive emergency evacuation plan was the group’s main recommendation. 

“Students with disabilities experience an inconsistent campus infrastructure for emergency evacuation — and often, downright danger,” the report read.

Currently, all campuses have emergency protocols for students with disabilities, some more extensive than others. While most campuses have evacuation chairs available, the onus falls on students to think proactively and request them, according to UC Communication Strategist Stett Holbrook.

At UC Irvine, for example, students can contact the disability services center to get a customized evacuation plan. The staff takes that approach to respect students’ agency, said ADA coordinator Andrew Berk.

“There are a lot of people with hidden disabilities who choose not to disclose,” he said. “We do not in any way want to put pressure on someone to disclose their disability.”

No student has requested an emergency evacuation plan this year, according to Berk. UC Irvine’s Emergency Management Director Randall Styner said his office is working to better communicate emergency evacuation options and resources available to students with campus posters and programming at orientation.

Berk and Styner collaborate to create customized plans for students when requested. Both stressed the importance of including people with disabilities in the planning process. 

“You cannot have accessibility if you do not involve people with disabilities,” Berk said, adding he is as a person with a disability. 

UC Irvine has installed evacuation chairs in 80% of its buildings,  according to a 2021-2022 emergency management report. Additionally, newer student housing offers two options: a button with two-way communication alerting first responders of the person’s location or a one-way system for guidance during emergencies. 

“This goes beyond people with disabilities because what we do for that population also helps people who are injured and people who might be a little older and not move as quickly too,” Berk said. 

Spruce Hall, a building in the student housing complex Primero Grove, at UC Davis on Jan. 10, 2023. (Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters)

At UC Davis, representatives from housing, emergency management and the campus fire department are currently revising some emergency protocols, according to UC Davis Crisis Communications Manager Bill Kisliuk.

“The draft calls for relevant campus units, for example, Student Housing and Dining Services, to train staff in identifying those in their communities who have access needs or functional needs and supporting them in an evacuation or other emergency,” Kisliuk wrote to CalMatters.  

Other higher education emergency plans

The 23-campus California State University system requires campuses to have emergency management programs, but not a protocol for accessibility. The Cal State Chancellor’s Office does not track which buildings at each campus have an evacuation chair. Each campus decides how to maintain evacuation chairs in the buildings, depending on how frequently the building is used or who is using the building, said Cal State spokesperson Amy Bentley-Smith.  

Like UC students, Cal State students with disabilities have had to navigate campuses not built for them. Cal Poly Humboldt alum Christine diBella sued her campus and the CSU over a lack of accessibility in October 2021. Her complaint outlined a general lack of accessibility on campus, including the lack of an emergency evacuation plan. Despite living on the third floor of her dorm building at the time, like other disabled students she could not get out in her power wheelchair. The case was settled in October 2023.

The California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office instructs campuses to follow the state-recommended evacuation guides, “emphasizing that districts comply” with the recommendations. Those include communicating plans on social media or having a local disaster registry — a list of individuals who might need additional support during emergencies, said system spokesperson Melissa Villarin.  

“We feel it’s important that college officials, who have deep and specific knowledge of their campuses, partner with local emergency response officials,” said Villarin, who explained each community college district has individualized emergency plans. “Their knowledge, combined, can be used to develop plans and policies that protect students, staff and the public.” If there is a need for further emergency training, campuses are directed to consult the California Office of Emergency Services.

What is happening now at UC?

The UC Office for Civil Rights launched Feb. 20 and includes a Title IX office, an office for anti-discrimination and one for disability rights. Catherine Spear will start as executive director of the civil rights office on May 6, reporting directly to Drake. The office will streamline all discrimination and harassment allegations and aims to provide consistency in the reporting process, according to the office’s website.  

In an email sent March 19, Drake required each campus to designate a representative to update on campus evacuation plan changes and to complete a checklist by June 30. Campuses must designate a campus representative, develop individualized emergency evacuation plans and provide evacuation chairs.  

These new requirements are aimed at ensuring students don’t experience the anguish Manriquez felt in his hallway in September. He says he’s optimistic about the new protocols and office, something that may not have happened had the UC Regents not heard him from that meeting. 

“I think it is extremely important to have leaders among higher education that are representatives of the students they serve,” Manriquez said. “I rarely, if ever have, seen a physically disabled person in a position of university leadership at the highest level.” 

Wu is a fellow with the CalMatters College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists from across California. CalMatters higher education coverage is supported by a grant from the College Futures Foundation.

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