Greece student leads the way on her high school’s improved safety plan for people with disabilities | #schoolsaftey

A local high school student has successfully challenged her school to improve its emergency response plan for people with disabilities.

Giana Bisnett, 14, a freshman at Athena High School in Greece, said whenever there is a fire drill or emergency at school, she has to wait in a designated area with a school staff member until first responders arrive.

“It’s not fun to be left behind,” she said.

Giana has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair, so she can’t use the stairs to exit the building.

But this will change in the next school year. Giana recently convinced the Greece Central School District to purchase emergency evacuation chairs. The devices allow people with disabilities to be safely moved down a flight of stairs.

“It was a very easy thing to say yes to,” said principal Kelly Flagler. “Not only for Athena High School, but for the entire Greece Central School District.”

Flagler praised Giana for using her voice to refine the school’s safety procedures and make them more aligned with their core values.

“Certainly, we have evacuation procedures that are within the letter of the law,” Flagler said, “but not always the spirit of the law.”

The school district purchased nine evacuation chairs at a cost of about $1,000 each, according to community relations manager Laurel Heiden. The devices, which can hold a weight capacity of up to 400 pounds, will be located at Athena Middle and High schools as well as the Acradia and Odyssey campuses, the district’s only school buildings with two or more floors.

Staff at the schools will undergo training on how to properly use the chairs before the 2023-24 school year begins, Heiden said.

Giana’s participation in the Disability EmpowHER Network is what inspired her to take on the advocacy challenge. “I feel really excited that I was able to make this happen,” she said.

Giana Bisnett, 14, and her mentor, Stephanie Woodward, executive director of the Disability EmpowHER Network.

Giana’s mentor is the network’s executive director, Stephanie Woodward, a disability rights advocate who also has spina bifida. Woodward was convinced from the start that Giana was a leader, and she believes the young student now knows that herself.

“When she didn’t believe in herself, she kept going, and I think she made a bigger impact than she ever anticipated,” Woodward said.

Giana has plans to expand her efforts even further.

She is scheduled to travel to Washington, D.C., in July to speak to the offices of New York Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand about expanding the use of the evacuation chairs at schools throughout New York and possibly beyond.

This story is reported from WXXI’s Inclusion Desk.

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