In the spring of 1997, Leslie Little was preparing to speak at a forum about home and fire safety for people with disabilities. She wanted to include a demonstration of a fire extinguisher that was adapted for use by people with disabilities.
Problem was, such a device didn't exist.
Little, a resident of Williamsburg, Va., searched exhaustively by phone and on the Internet for an adapted fire extinguisher. Not only did she discover a lack of vital adapted safety equipment on the market, but also a general lack of understanding when it comes to emergency situations and people with disabilities.
What she did find was a mission for herself, and some like-minded advocates for safety of those with disabilities.
Over the next two and a half years, Little, 43, pioneered an effort to design, develop and distribute a fire extinguisher that can be easily operated by people with mobility, visual or cognitive impairments.
The effort is nearing completion: Underwriters Laboratories is currently testing the fire extinguisher, and the device is expected to be on the market by mid-June.
Little, who has Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, says she was shocked by the answers she received when trying to find an adapted fire extinguisher. Many companies that manufacture fire and life safety equipment for home use were uninterested in creating a product that would serve a limited population, she says.
"I was told a number of things, but the one that I loved the best was, 'Disabled people don't have fires,'" Little says. Little laughs when she remembers how she told that company she was willing to set her own house on fire just to make her point — that the need is very real.
Persistence eventually led her to a Midwest manufacturer who took on the project, and he had Little do more research on what type of device would best serve a population with varied physical impairments.
After surveying 250 people with disabilities for design suggestions, Little and the company's engineers agreed on a final design.
Rather than having a pullout pin as traditional models have, the Adapted Fire Extinguisher's trigger activates with a spring that can be engaged with minimal force.
Little insisted that the extinguisher have a trigger that could be flipped by the amount of force exerted by the tip of a pinky. Anything tighter and a person with weak or arthritic hands wouldn't be able to operate it, she says.
Other features are a large-print gauge with a nonglare covering (to help those with visual disabilities), and a total weight of less than 5 pounds. The extinguisher is effective up to 9 feet from a flame, and it's filled with a nontoxic substance, for the benefit of people with environmental sensitivities and breathing difficulties.
"It can be used from many angles: upside down, sideways, on your lap, propped between your legs," Little says. "Once the fire is out, put it back on your chair, or your walker, or forearm cuffs, or your braces or your wall, and call the fire department to come verify that you actually did put the fire out."
Another design requirement: affordability. Currently, the Adapted Fire Extinguisher will cost $14, but Little says she's aiming for $10 so fire departments can purchase them and give them to appropriate clients. The device will be sold only by rehabilitative and medical equipment dealers in an effort to eliminate added fees that might drive the price up.
People interested in purchasing an extinguisher will also eventually be able to do so by contacting H.E.L.P.U. (How Eliminating Limited Perceptions Unifies Us).
While she's quick to point out that many other individuals have contributed to the development of the extinguisher — including a key financial backer, who has remained anonymous, and the manufacturer, who didn't want to be credited in this story for his work — she's proud to see it come to fruition.
"I am very thrilled about it, but it's not something for me. It's for people after me," she says, adding that she wants it to be available for future generations.
The extinguisher is just one tangible result of Little's advocacy and longtime involvement with education and safety issues about and for people with disabilities.
A former sign language interpreter for schoolchildren, she was dismayed by the way fire safety was taught to disabled children and adults, and has spent many years working to improve it. She's also been motivated by personal experience with fire and hurricane damage to her own homes in the past.
In January, Little started H.E.L.P.U., a nonprofit advocacy and consulting group in Virginia focusing on fire and life safety as well as disaster services for people with disabilities.
|Little treats a victim in a mock disaster drill, a final test for her FEMA-Community Emergency Response Team certification. Little has been told she is the first person who uses a wheelchair to earn this certification.|
In addition to the fire extinguisher, other H.E.L.P.U. projects include producing a video about specialized evacuation techniques for people with disabilities, and enhancing a local database to identify emergency service needs of people with disabilities. The group has a website, an online newsletter and a safety issues mailing list.
Little has also developed manuals and brochures for educating fire officials about the unique evacuation needs of people with disabilities. She's certified in many levels of emergency preparedness and disaster services.
She encourages people with disabilities to get involved in safety issues that affect their communities.
"Just because a person has got a vision problem or can't hear or cannot walk, it doesn't preclude them from participating in safety."