Wheelchair-user won claim after being grounded by lack of lift

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Most people will be aware that they must never use a lift to move around a building in the event of a fire. Some people don’t like lifts anyway, and others have no choice but to use them – unless there isn’t a lift in the first place.

That last scenario landed a national book retailer with a £5,000 compensation bill after a 60-year-old man who is disabled by spina bifida arrived at one of their stores in his wheelchair to buy a book on how to build websites.

All the relevant titles were on a mezzanine floor and there was no lift. The staff offered to get him the book he wanted, but the fact that one floor was inaccessible to him denied the man the opportunity to browse for himself. He sought the help of Unity Law and secured an apology, the compensation and an agreement that the store would install a lift.

Such episodes do not always end there. Many businesses opt to include platform lifts, which are less expensive than passenger lifts but which create difficulties which could be discriminatory. Even passenger lifts can pose problems and a key point to remember is that lifts are an alternative to stairs but should not be considered as a replacement.

Platform lifts are generally smaller than passenger lifts and they move more slowly, taking longer to move people around and potentially putting disabled people at a disadvantage compared to non-disabled users. Also, with a platform lift you need to maintain constant pressure on the control button and some people can’t do that.

So platform lifts should only be used in exceptional circumstances, for example in an existing building which doesn’t have the space for a lift with a motor room. It is much more difficult to make a case for using platform lifts in new buildings, and any attempt to claim exceptional circumstances would have to be very convincing. Businesses may be tempted to try and avoid the higher cost of a passenger lift by pleading lack of space, but in most cases good advice will warn against such an approach.

The right type of lift also needs the right features and facilities inside and out. A handrail is important, and there should be good lighting levels and clear colour contrast between the floor – which should be a light shade – and the walls.

The audio communication system should incorporate inductive couplers, and users should be able to operate it with a clenched fist – people in a lift need to be able to alert someone if there is a problem, and people outside need to be able to provide reassurance while the matter is being resolved.

A mirror will help people see who or what is behind them in the lift and outside. When the door opens, they should be able to see clear signage which will indicate the floor they are on and which also helps people find their way around a building in the event of an evacuation.

That in turn raises the question of how you get people out of your premises if they can’t use the stairs and you can’t use – or don’t have – a lift?

By putting in place generic and personal evacuation plans for occupants of your building whose requirements you do know, you’ll be better organised and able to provide assistance more effectively to any visitors whose emergency needs you don’t know. That’s an area which we will cover in more detail in a future article.

At About Access, we provide a range of services concerned with accessibility for disabled people. Lift design is covered as part of our access audits. We also look at escape routes and procedures and identify where a review will help.

Our aim is to help organisations avoid costly and damaging conflict by ensuring that their premises are accessible. We also work to make sure staff are properly trained, and that they recognise disabled people – including customers and colleagues – as individuals whose requirements and treatment are key to the wellbeing of a business.

Managing Director Ian Streets is a member of the National Register of Access Consultants, the Access Association and Network Rail’s Built Environment Access Panel (BEAP) and as such works with BSI Standards, the UK’s national standards body, to advise on appropriate designs for buildings and their surrounding areas.

In the coming months we will look at some specific issues and examples around access for disabled people. If at any point you want to know more, or you have a question or concern, please contact us at info@aboutaccess.co.uk

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