Universal design has been a topic of much discussion in recent times. In fact, the Association of Consultants in Access Australia dedicated their recent national conference to the theme "Universal Design: A Better Way."

Universal design has been described as “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialised design.”

There is no doubt that there are some consistencies between the fields of universal design and accessibility for people with disability, but universal design extends its range to considering the abilities of all people regardless of their age, size, or abilities and not just to those with disability.

On this basis, universal design is not just about accessibility for a small proportion of society, but more about providing an inclusive and usable environment for everyone. Consideration for universal design in emergency planning not only benefits those people with an activity limitation, but all people.

When we consider the design of a public building in terms of emergency management there are a number of concepts that can be considered to provide a more usable and safer building for everyone’s use. This is particularly important when we have large numbers of people visiting unfamiliar buildings, such as transport hubs, museums, libraries, shopping centres or the like.

These general considerations can include:

  • using alarms that notify occupants of any emergency in visual and audible formats
  • providing audible information in emergency announcements in different languages
  • providing accessible paths to a safe place outside the building
  • designing out access barriers at concept stage (such as steps, heavy doors, narrow corridors, spatially restrictive turns in corridors and so on)
  • providing accessible exit signs in a clear and simple format (with tactile and Braille components) that provide wayfinding information leading people to suitable exits
  • adopting best practice wayfinding strategies in evacuation routes (such as low level signage, colour coded exit pathways and exit doors, glow in the dark signs and lines on floors showing the evacuation routes and so on)

Incorporating universal design at the design stage of any public building can help to provide a much safer and easier to manage building, particularly when the alarm bells sound.

In contrast, when universal design is not factored into the design of such a public building, it creates a need for tighter emergency management controls that consider the needs of the general population. This obviously presents as a risk for any manager or emergency controller of a public building, particularly shopping centres, where security staff might be spread very thinly across a large area and when retail stores manage procedures within their own tenancy spaces.

Overseas, there have been cases of shoppers being left behind during evacuations. In one particular case in the United States, a lady who uses a wheelchair was left behind in a large department store. The court ruled that the store should have had knowledge of this person and therefore had a duty to help her. In this case, it was also deemed a breach of the disability legislation even though she hadn’t been injured during the incident, as there was the potential for personal injury.

A similar event recently occurred in the United Kingdom when in August this year, a 77-year-old pensioner with a disability was shopping in a large store when she heard the fire alarm. By the time she arrived at the storefront, she found the security shutters down and she was trapped inside. It wasn’t clear from media reports what caused the lady’s delay in responding to the alarm, but what is clear is that more consideration to universal design in situations like this may help to prevent similar events.

Information, in the form of accessible, identifiable, and suitably sized exit signage could help people make better decisions; audible announcements can help to alert and inform people; and simple non-confusing paths of travel to clearly defined exit doors will assist people who might experience some delays in registering the situation, their environments or the immediate threat of danger.

Consideration for universal design principles in evacuation planning not only benefits those people with an activity limitations, but also the elderly, people who do not speak English, small children, parents with prams and for staff tasked with emergency planning responsibilities. Ultimately good design considering the universal design principles can create a more usable, safer and intuitive environment.