People with disabilities, buildings and COVID-19: 5 steps to ensure accessibility for all
In the past several months COVID-19 has impacted the globe with significant health, safety and economic challenges. Unfortunately, these challenges have, at times, disproportionately impacted those within the disability community.
According to the CDC, there are an estimated 61 million Americans who identify as being a person with a disability. This vibrant community is made up of individuals across all walks of life, covering every demographic and socioeconomic status. Yet, despite these numbers, and legal protections in place (more on that below), the impact COVID-19 has had on this vulnerable population is profound. News articles and blog posts tell individual stories that chronicle the loss of essential services, difficulty in accessing buildings, lack of planning and communication, and in some cases, marginalization.
Given this, how can building owners, facility managers, and others ensure that people with disabilities are respected, included in the planning process, and provided the required and appropriate safeguards? Please see below for five practical areas for consideration that may help navigate these challenges.
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Other Codes
It is important to remember that people with disabilities are afforded rights and protections under federal law. Since its landmark adoption in 1991, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has provided both the legal framework and design standards criteria to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities in everyday activities. Many states, as well as local jurisdictions, may also have requirements that mirror or exceed the ADA, so you will want to ensure compliance with those as warranted. Because the ADA is federal law it generally cannot be waived or reduced by local officials. Finally, unless directed by the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ), the provisions of adopted building, fire and life safety codes remain in force, even during COVID-19. Please consult your AHJ for specific requirements.
Emergency Action Plans (EAP)
These plans have many names but all provide a basic framework for building occupants to know what to do in the event of specific emergencies. These plans should include and address considerations for people with disabilities. Building owners and facility managers should ask the following questions: Is your EAP up to date? Is contact information for staff and vendors current? Have egress routes or other important building systems changed over the past few months? When was the last fire drill or emergency evacuation drill? Should your EAP need a refresh please see NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, section 4.8 for specific requirements. Another great resource is the Emergency Evacuation Planning Guide for People with Disabilities, published by the NFPA Disability Access Review and Advisory Committee (DARAC). This guide can be a useful tool to help bring essential needs and considerations to light.
Many buildings have adjusted their entries and lobbies to now require such features as staggered entry, mask deployments and temperature checks. How have these important and pragmatic changes taken people with disabilities into account? The following questions should be considered: Are entries free and clear of obstruction? Is the entry accessible for those using wheelchairs or other mobility devices? Can reasonable accommodations be made to assist people with disabilities? Have staff been trained to provide information and assistance where needed? Finally, are there opportunities to promote inclusiveness? One interesting article shows how the wearing of opaque masks has become a communication barrier for people who must read lips. When employees assisting these customers wore transparent face masks these barriers were instantly removed.
A bedrock principle of life safety is maintaining free and unobstructed egress at all times, and COVID-19 is no exception. As my colleague Greg Harrington wrote in a blog post geared toward business occupancies, “there is no justifiable reason for locking egress doors or otherwise compromising means of egress…”. So I will ask the question: are your means of egress available for use by all occupants, including people with disabilities? Are egress doors, corridors, exits and stairwells free and clear of obstruction? Has signage been provided in accessible formats to relay important information related to the building's COVID-19 changes and updates? Are accessible means of egress available and ready for use if needed? A simple building tour may help to reveal and remedy many of these issues.
Temporary Structures (Tents)
The use of temporary structures, and especially tents, have been prevalent in many occupancies during the pandemic. Whether found in a health care setting (for patient screening), a mercantile occupancy (outdoor markets or retail) or a mercantile/assembly arrangement (outdoor dining), these structures present life safety challenges. Additionally, even with the best of intentions, they could introduce unintended consequences for staff and visitors alike. As my colleague Shawn Mahoney wrote, these structures have precautions that must be taken to ensure that fire and life safety is observed. Some questions to consider when planning for people with disabilities in these structures are: Are exits accessible? Are there any elevations that might pose a challenge to people with disabilities? Is the public way free and clear of obstruction for those who may utilize a sidewalk? Have staff been trained on what to do in the event of an emergency? Answering these questions will ensure that people with disabilities can navigate these structures safely, and importantly for business owners, to return for potential repeat business. For example, if there are minimal and reduced width entries/exits, tables arranged to not provide an adequate turning radius, and only high tables present, how could a person that utilizes a wheelchair, or other mobility device, frequent this establishment?
In closing, I believe that one thing that the Novel Coronavirus has reinforced is the need for inclusion and care for those around us. We are all in this together. As you walk around the buildings where you work, live or visit please remember to keep these questions at the forefront. This will allow buildings to truly be accessible for all, even during these unprecedented times.
Stay healthy, stay inclusive, and stay safe!
For the most up to date information from the NFPA regarding fire and life safety in the midst of COVID-19, be sure to check out https://www.nfpa.org/coronavirus.