Posted by: Lars Oestreicher | January 31, 2012

Where is the emergency exit?

Emergency situation with man i wheel chair.

In case of fire, don't use the lift.

During the course on Universal design that I have given before Christmas, we came to discuss the issue in this post. Where is the emergency exit when you have an impairment? It is very simple to say a thing such as: “In case of fire, do not use the lift”. But what are the implications? How is a person in a wheel chair supposed to get down? Taking the stairs is definitely not an option. Part of the problem is of course the actual instance, where the suggested solution is not a possible alternative.

But part of the problem is also of the more general kind: Why are there so few solutions for emergency exits for people with impairments? In a normal lecture room at the university, there is exactly one entrance and exit. If the corridor gets filled with smoke and fire, the only exit is through the windows. But how is a person in a wheel chair supposed to get up to the window? The window ledges is so high that it is bad enough for a person who can use both legs.

After the lecture, I have started to look at emergency exits for people with impairments. There are virtually none. Steel spiral staircases? Window exits? Staircases instead of lifts? The sad but true fact is that the emergency solutions are designed for people without impairments. How can you find the exits if you are blind? How can you notice the fire, if you can’t hear the alarm bells (actually, in some places they are difficult to hear even with normal hearing).

How can we change this? By developing new evacuation tools. Why not try to invent a way to allow a wheel chair to get down a stair case in an emergency. Why not provide good instructions for blind people at the entrance of a room. We might even print the instructions in Braille on the walls close to the door. And why only use sound as warning sounds. A flashing light together with a warning sign would help many more attend to the warning signs.

But the most important thing is, maybe, to increase the awareness of this problem. Opening the eyes of architects and designers might be another way to start a process of preventive design.

The picture in this blog is by Garrick Tremaine, and is used with his kind permission. Please don’t copy it without permission.

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