By Michael Campbell
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 with disabilities.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 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, 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?
The Americans with Disabilities Act and other codes
It is important to remember that people with disabilities are afforded rights and protections under federal law, which generally cannot be waived or reduced by local officials.
Since its landmark amendment in 1991, the 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. Finally, unless directed by the authority having jurisdiction, the provisions of adopted building, fire and life safety codes remain in force, even when COVID-19 risk-mitigation policies are in place.
Emergency action plans
These plans provide a basic framework for building occupants to know what to do in the event of specific emergencies. They should include and address considerations for people with disabilities.
Building owners and facility managers should ask:
— Is our EAP up to date?
— Is contact information for staff and vendors current?
— Have exit routes or other important building systems changed over the past few months?
— When was the last fire drill or emergency evacuation drill?
Should an EAP need a refresh, refer to National Fire Protection Association 101, Life Safety Code, section 4.8 on the website https://www.nfpa.org for specific requirements. Another resource to try is the Emergency Evacuation Planning Guide for People with Disabilities, published by the NFPA Disability Access Review and Advisory Committee. 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 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?
— Are there opportunities to promote inclusiveness?
One further interesting point to note: 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.
Maintaining clear exits
A bedrock principle of life safety is maintaining free and unobstructed building exits at all times. Even with COVID-19 mitigation protocols in place, all exits should be available for use by all occupants, including people with disabilities. Doors, corridors, exits and stairwells should be free and clear of obstruction and signage in accessible formats – such as Braille – should relay important information related to the building’s COVID-19 related changes and updates. A simple building tour may help to reveal and remedy many of these issues.
Temporary structures, especially tents, have been used a lot during the pandemic. Whether found in a health care setting for patient screening, outdoor markets or dining, these structures introduce unintended consequences for staff and visitors alike, even with the best of intentions.
Consider the accessibility of exits and elevation and sidewalk obstructions that might pose a challenge to people with disabilities. Additionally, staff must be trained on what to do in the event of an emergency.
One thing COVID-19 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 these issues. Buildings must be truly accessible for all, even during these unprecedented times.
(Editor’s note: Campbell is a Fort Leonard Wood Fire Department fire inspector.)