Greece freshman successfully advocates for Evac-Chairs for students with disabilities

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GREECE, N.Y. A freshman in high school, advocating for herself and others with disabilities, is making big changes in Greece.

She has pushed the school district to change the way some students will be evacuated from school buildings during an emergency. Giana Bisnett is a freshman at Greece Athena High School and as a young woman who uses a wheelchair, there’s something that’s always bothered her: fire drills.

“It was hard because in the middle school, there was a safe room, which is just the music room, so it’s not really fireproof, and in the high school, I have to wait in the stairwell, which is like the area of refuge but it’s hard seeing everyone else go outside,” Bisnett tells News10NBC.

Bisnett is part of Disability EmpowHER Network, which is an organization for young women with disabilities that pairs them with successful adult women mentors with disabilities.

“Just told to wait and hope that someone will come along and it’s hard to live on a hope that someone will remember you,” says Executive Director Stephanie Woodward.

Whether it’s a fire, a shooting or some other emergency, “it’s very much like students with disabilities can be an afterthought and that leaves lots of students with disabilities in danger,” Woodward says. “It’s not just wheelchair users. There are students with learning disabilities who may need additional support to escape a building and students who don’t react well to sound who may not know to be quiet during a lockdown.”

So, with the help of her mentor, Bisnett decided to do something about it. She did a lot of research about evacuation chairs that are used to assist people with mobility issues down the stairs in an emergency and decided to approach the Greece Central School District about buying them.

“You put the disabled person in the chair and then you pull them down the stairs and the wheels kind of glide,” Bisnett explains, “I’m like, I think I want to do this project so I emailed principals, the school board, and then got a school board meeting.”

It didn’t take long for Bisnett to get a yes.

“We’re in compliance with regard to the letter of the law but I think what Giana is tapping into in terms of her advocacy isn’t necessarily in compliance with the spirit of the law or what we know to be in the best interest of the social and emotional well-being of our kids,” says Kelly Flagler, the principal of Greece Athena High School.

The district used some of its COVID money to buy an Evac-Chairs for every school that is higher than one story.

“What’s been so remarkable is that she’s used her experience to help us rethink our safety and security procedures and it was really a no-brainer,” says Flager.

For Bisnett, it’s simple.

“Every person needs to feel safe during emergencies,” she says.

The high schooler has a trip planned to Washington, D.C., this summer with EmpowHER to advocate for Evac-Chairs to be mandated in schools across the country.