The growing recognition that accessibility is good for business is definitely leading to improvements – but it is also exposing a lack of knowledge and preparation in another key area.
As more business owners and operators become of the aware of the value of the Purple Pound – the money spent by disabled people and their companions – they are making it easier for everyone to get in and around their premises.
But what about getting out – and particularly in a hurry?
When the fire alarm blasts out or a building’s power supply fails, what’s the plan for making sure disabled people are evacuated safely along with all other occupants?
The issue was highlighted recently when we carried out a study of a local authority’s art, culture and leisure facilities. As they prepare a bid for funding to improve accessibility, they needed input from experts to identify where they are now, and to set the benchmark.
Our audit looked at the quality of disabled access to the various premises, which were all relatively small buildings including galleries, museums and various workshops.
We examined the full range of potential issues, from getting into buildings to using and moving around the properties, and we made general recommendations about how to view artwork, and how to access the WC facilities.
But more important than all of that is the need to ensure that whoever enters a building can also safely leave it, particularly during an emergency evacuation. As part of our work we speak in detail with people who run venues, and we find that egress is generally something that has been given the least consideration.
There can be various options for getting disabled people out of a building safely and effectively, and they depend largely on the nature of the evacuation and the severity of an individual’s impairment.
It takes us into the territory of PEEPs and GEEPs, and every business should have them.
A PEEP (personal emergency evacuation plan) should be devised for all staff and regular visitors who have an impairment. It should contain information specific to that person on how to evacuate them.
A GEEP (general emergency evacuation plan) should be devised to provide for everybody else – the people you have never met – because you can’t predict the needs of everyone who may visit your building from one day to the next.
Among the points you need to consider is assistance for people with the use of stairs, which might mean physical help or reassurance and verbal support for someone who is panicking in a stressful situation.
You certainly have to set a plan for evacuating wheelchair users. Some will be comfortable going down the stairs on their backsides, one step at a time. Some might be happier using an evacuation chair, but there will be others who for various reasons can’t use an evacuation chair, and that can raise further issues.
There is equipment available which can be used to evacuate people safely without them having to transfer from their wheelchair. This will always be the preferred method because the more you have to move someone, the greater the risk that you will injure them.
By using equipment which picks up the wheelchair you can avoid any issues around the manual handling or transfer of an individual. Another benefit is that once you have taken the person to a place of safety, they will still have their wheelchair and may be able to continue independently from there. Using other methods, they would be stranded unless the wheelchair has also been moved for them.
Even if such equipment is available, staff should receive some training in manual handling of disabled people and in the use of evacuation chairs, and not necessarily only for use in an evacuation scenario. If a disabled – or non-disabled – person is injured you might not have time to wait for an ambulance to arrive. You might need to move the individual more quickly.
An effective management policy will cover all these eventualities, starting with the physical aspects of a building which may present obstacles to disabled people and extending to the attitudes and appreciation of staff who will usually be first at the scene if difficulties arise.
Such a policy can also highlight any features which may be particularly helpful to disabled people, and it should be reviewed regularly with a view to making ongoing improvements.
Even if you already operate your building, products and services to a high standard of accessibility there is nothing to stop you conducting another access audit and trying to set new benchmarks, because in almost every case improvements can still be made.
28 October 2017