pens when an emergency evacuation is needed in a building – from a fire, natural disaster, chemical spill, or civil unrest? Will people with disabilities be able to safely evacuate the building in such situations?

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According to Stats SA, approximately three million people in South Africa live with disabilities. A disability can be defined as any condition of the body or mind (impairment) that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities (activity limitations) and interact with the world around them (participation restriction).

Challenges faced by people living with disabilities

People living with disabilities are discriminated against, disadvantaged, and excluded from society and from opportunities. Disabled people face different barriers and challenges daily, and one of the barriers faced is architectural or physical barrier.

Architectural or physical barriers are elements of buildings or outdoor spaces that create hindrances and limitations to persons with disabilities. These limitations relate to the design of a building – from a building’s stairs or doorways, the layout of rooms, or the width of halls and sidewalks. Examples of architectural or physical barriers include:

  • Sidewalks and doorways that are too narrow for a wheelchair, scooter, or walker.
  • Desks that are too high for a person who is using a wheelchair, or other mobility device.
  • Poor lighting that makes it difficult to see for a person with low vision or a person who lip-reads.
  • Absence of ramps or built-in elevators
  • And lack of proper building evacuation plans

Accessibility in storey buildings

Accessibility is a term used to describe the degree to which a device or service or environment is available to be used by all intended audiences (whether they have a disability or not). Houses and buildings need to be accessible and friendly to people who live with disabilities, especially storey buildings. Architectures need to comply to the regulations in place that meet the needs of physically disabled people. Basic features needed to accommodate people with disabilities need to be added in the plan and design of the building.

“Accessibility is still a problem for mobility impaired people, particularly in a multi-storey building. Architects have the power to break this barrier by ensuring that they design spaces that meets the safety needs for everyone,” said Gavin Glass, Owner & Founder of Evac Chairs SA.

Emergency exits in storey buildings

Another important factor that architects need to consider is the emergency exists for people living with disabilities. An emergency exit is a path of exit travel from any point within a building to a place of safety. A building must have at least two exit routes to prompt evacuation of building occupants during an emergency. However, most emergency exit routes in a storey building are not designed to aid people living with disabilities and with everyone else in panic, will they get the help that the need to safely evacuate. Below are a few examples:

Exit stairs – mobile impaired people and blind people cannot go down the stairs when there is an evacuation.

Exit route doors (Unlocked from the inside) – some disabled people might not be able to reach or turn the door handles.

How can people living with disabilities be accommodated during an emergency evacuation?

  • Buildings need to be designed with people living with disabilities in mind.
  • Buildings need to have a proper evacuation plan that includes people living with disabilities.
  • Buildings also need to have trained people allocated to help the disabled in an emergency evacuation.
  • Buildings need to be fully equipped by installing equipment that people living with disabilities need such as evacuation chairs – a chair designed to carry mobility impaired people down the stairs in an emergency evacuation when the lifts are not working.
  • Buildings should be prepared ahead of time – have emergency drills that include disabled people.

Accessibility in storey buildings for disabled people needs to be considered from the planning and designing phase of a building. Architects need to explore the question of whether disabled people will be safely evacuated from the building in case of an emergency and recognise the challenges faced by people living with disabilities. People living with disabilities need to be included and respected like other members of society, their safety during emergency evacuations needs to be prioritised.