Ask the panel

December 15, 2006

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Our library building is old and lacks a fire-safe lift; in an emergency, we could not evacuate wheelchair-users and others with mobility impairments from the upper floors or keep them safe while awaiting emergency services. We are considering installing evacuation chairs to use on our fire escapes and providing fire refuge areas. Until we can do so, would it be discriminatory to ask wheelchair-users to wait or use the accessible equipment on the ground floor while staff collect the resources they may require from the upper floors?

* Our panellist from the Equality Challenge Unit says: "You have identified a substantial safety risk to some disabled library users, and you are rightly trying to identify a short-term position until decisions have been made about evacuation chairs and a fire refuge.

"Although limiting library access would have a negative effect on some disabled people, genuine safety concerns must take precedence until action has been taken to remove potential risks.

"The Disability Equality Duty (DED), which came into force on December 4, provides a useful context for considering your interim position. The involvement of disabled people in decisions that affect them is a key element of the new duty. Placing limitations on library access is likely to have a significant effect on library users with a mobility impairment, so it is worth involving this group of staff and students in your decisions about interim arrangements, as well as in planning the long-term improvements to the library's evacuation procedures. Disabled people with a mobility impairment are likely to have particular views on whether they would be prepared to use evacuation chairs, for example.

"To arrange this involvement of disabled people, you may need to contact the individual or team who is co-ordinating your institution's Disability Equality Scheme.

"A further reason for the involvement of disabled library users is the requirement to develop personal emergency evacuation plans, or Peeps, which should cover all areas of campus.

"Disabled people with a range of impairments, including sensory and mental health impairments, may require a Peep, which is usually developed by a student liaison officer, a disability liaison officer or a fire warden in conjunction with disabled individuals.

"Peeps can help identify the need for any changes to the physical environment and thus assist your institution in meeting the DED in the longer term.

"More information and advice on this issue is available from the Department for Communities and Local Fire Policy Division (Tel: 020 7944 6855) and from the Health and Safety Executive Infoline (0845 345 0055)."

* Our panellist from the University and College Union says: "Under new regulations that came into force on October 1, all workplace fire precautions are based on the results of a special fire risk assessment conducted by the employer.

"In conducting such assessments, the employer should have regard for the standards set out in the British Standards Institute publication BS5588: Part 8;1999 - Fire Precautions in the Design, Construction and use of Buildings: Code of Practice for Means of Escape for Disabled People .

"The question of discriminatory practice is covered by disability discrimination legislation, which requires reasonable adjustments to be made by an employer, service provider or the owner of premises.

"What is 'reasonable' depends on a number of factors, but I would say that if an institution could ensure that suitable adjustments were being made to meet the needs of people with a disability, and that work to bring a building up to the necessary standards was planned and in hand, then I don't think this would be discriminatory."

This advice panel includes the University and College Union, the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, Research Councils UK, the Equality Challenge Unit and Rachel Flecker, an academic who sits on Bristol University's contract research working party. Send questions to advicepanel@thes.co.uk

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