New buildings need to consider universal design principles to ensure all people can safely and independently evacuate a building that is free of barriers, restrictions or delays.

The 1975 publication Fundamental Principles of Disability argued that the problems faced by people with disability were caused by society’s failure to take account of their needs, not by their impairments.

This view developed into the social model of disability and differs greatly from the medical model of disability. The medical model sees people with disability in need of medical intervention and to be cured or fixed. Under that model, people with disability are to be pitied, considered in need of charity and often hidden away from society.

In contrast, the social model sees the disability as the result of a person with an impairment living in a world with barriers. These barriers present themselves in many forms, including technological, physical, communication and in social attitudes. The social model purports that for full inclusion, there must be significant changes made and barriers removed so that people with disability can participate on an equal basis within society.

Thankfully, times are changing and we now have international laws to protect the rights of people with disability. In 2006, the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was adopted by the UN General Assembly. The convention has since been ratified by New Zealand, Australia, Canada and many other countries, including Vietnam earlier this year.

The convention aims to “promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights by persons with disabilities.”

It includes a number of areas such as accessibility, personal mobility, health, education, employment, habilitation and rehabilitation, participation in political life, equality and non-discrimination. The convention recognises the importance for a shift in attitudes from the social welfare concern (being the medical model) to a human rights issue (being the social model), which acknowledges that these social barriers are disabling people.

A critical factor to the success of meeting the objectives of the convention is by adopting universal design principles. The UN defines universal design as the “design of products, environments, programmes and services to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”

It also adds that universal design “shall not exclude assistive devices for particular groups of persons with disabilities where this is needed.”

In terms of universal design and evacuation planning, there are a number of measures that can be implemented to ensure a building is safe for all occupants, not only when the building is being used in its normal state, but when there’s an emergency and a need for evacuation.

During an evacuation, the anatomy of a building changes, alarms are activated, passenger lifts cannot generally be used and people use egress paths that may differ from their normal path into the building. For these reasons, designing a universally accessible means of egress into the building at an early concept stage is the best approach.

Though the following is not an exhaustive list, it aims to provide some basic steps that can be adopted to provide a universally inclusive environment, with consideration to the social model of disability discussed above, and with regard to emergency planning:

  1. Ensure emergency management procedures are in place, with mechanisms to identify the needs of individuals.
  2.  Implement tailored Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans (PEEPs) for people who self-identify their impairment and develop General (or Group) Emergency Evacuation Plans (GEEPs) within public spaces.
  3. Nominate fire wardens in all locations who can supervise the evacuation and remove any barriers.
  4. Conduct regular inspections of egress routes to ensure they’re unobstructed.
  5. Provide clear and unambiguous exit signage with Braille and tactile characters, with directional signage directing people to exits.
  6. Provide an accessible means of egress path that can be negotiated independently, including the use of an evacuation lift when on an upper or lower level.
  7. Use assistive devices such as evacuation chairs where evacuation lifts have not been provided.
  8. Display evacuation diagrams showing the accessible egress routes, including identifying where exits, evacuation lifts, refuge areas, evacuation chairs and fire stairs are provided.
  9.  Supplement alarm notification systems with visual and vibrating alarm devices.
  10. Provide accessible handrails on both sides of all fire stairs.
  11. Identify exit doors with a contrasting colour, provide accessible door handles and sufficient circulation space on approach to each exit door.

Given our ageing population, longer working lives and higher density living it is critical that we start to prioritise the importance of a universally accessible egress route from all buildings, including residential buildings and change legislation to reflect this requirement.

United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities,
People with Disability, The Social Model of Disability,