Building Evacuations and the Social Model of Disability 9

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Tuesday, March 17th, 2015
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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.

References:
United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/enable/rights/convtexte.htm#convtext
People with Disability, The Social Model of Disability, http://www.pwd.org.au/student-section/the-social-model-of-disability.html

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9
  1. Paul Johnson

    This is an incredibly important topic is one could imagine that those in wheelchairs, for example, would have difficulty using stairs or fire escapes in case of emergency and may have to be assisted out by others whilst those with sight or hearing difficulties may have difficulty hearing alarm bells or reading warning signs.

    The steps outlined above are not only common sense but go a long way toward helping those with disabilities overcome social disadvantage and participate safely in environments of work, living, shopping or recreation.

  2. Lee Wilson

    Thank you for your comment Paul, very well said.

  3. Mick Price

    Fantastic article written with passion and foresight. I am soon to undertake a residential project which will incorporate all that Lee has mentioned and more.

  4. Sarah

    Structural accessibility, while essential, means nothing if there isn't the mindset to go with it. Something can look accessible on paper and be anything but that in practise if employers, rules, etc don't follow common sense and good will.

    This is my own experience once I became a wheelchair user at work in a high rise building.
    1) banned from high rise building where I worked until lifts fireproofed (so can be used in fire with special key)
    2) PEEP says 2 co-workers must be nominated as lift key holders (not me)
    3) not allowed in building unless both key holders at work, work hours restricted.
    4) Final blow? PEEP only to be used in fire drills. In real fire "too dangerous" for my co-workers, the key holders are uninsured and forbidden to follow my PEEP, so I'd get stranded.

    • Lee Wilson

      Hi Sarah, thank you for your comment and for publicly posting your own personal experiences of working in a high rise building. This situation just really isn't acceptable and I hope people in positions of authority read this article and your comment. Thank you again for your own insights.

    • Lee Wilson

      Hi Sarah, I am working on another article idea around the UN Convention and a failure of legislation and employers to address these needs. I wondered if I could quote your comment you posted please? I do not want to do so without your permission, but you really nailed the issue – the Australian Building Code Board have just released the findings of the Regulatory Impact Statement advising it is "difficult to justify on the basis of intangible benefits when considered against the large costs".

      This is the wording I'd like to use please:

      "This is my own experience once I became a wheelchair user at work in a high rise building.
      1) banned from high rise building where I worked until lifts fireproofed (so can be used in fire with special key)
      2) PEEP says 2 co-workers must be nominated as lift key holders (not me)
      3) not allowed in building unless both key holders at work, work hours restricted.
      4) Final blow? PEEP only to be used in fire drills. In real fire "too dangerous" for my co-workers, the key holders are uninsured and forbidden to follow my PEEP, so I'd get stranded."

      Thank you Sarah

    • Sarah

      Hi Lee
      I am happy for you to use my own experience, although it isn't exactly written in my best english since I was in a hurry and didn't expect it to be used again!
      Nonetheless I think it gets the point across adequately. If it can help improve future access for other disabled people, employees or not, then please go ahead.
      Best wishes.

  5. Shane Hogan

    The slide is not the only alternative to the evacuation chair. The lift or elevator is an alternative that should be considered. While there are risks involved in using the lift, it is often the least risky option. Ideally, the lift would be an evacuation lift or fire-fighting lift, but even a standard lift is often less risky than the time and effort involved in using an evacuation chair.