The blind leading the blind

2009-02-26 by

copyright of AndyDR at Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/andydr/

As an advisor in accessible environments, I often get remarks from bewildered building managers who are surprised that anyone would spend money to improve the accessibility of a building. “Surely disabled people should not be allowed to enter certain areas…to be on the safe side?” they ask.

Excluding disabled people from the workforce and your customer base is not only against the law, but a terrible loss. We miss out on the talent and problem-solving skills they bring, as well as their economic power as consumers. An organisation can legally exclude a disabled person from the workplace if they can demonstrate their presence constitutes an unavoidable hazard. Unfortunately this is often used an excuse to discriminate against disabled people and get away with it.

Thankfully, disability is gradually becoming less of a liability in Health and Safety issues.

A story from one of the firemen who worked at the World Trade Centre in New York City, tells of the successful evacuation of several disabled people from the one of the Twin Towers just before it collapsed. I quote it here:

“…and we were left with about 20 people in a variety of situations. Wheelchairs, walkers, crutches, walking-casts…the works…I matched each disabled, elderly or just plain tired office worker to an appropriate group of firemen and sent these groups on down…the last person to leave that glass walled office was a 59 year old Brooklyn grandmother named Josephine Harris…far as we could tell, she’d be the last civilian to make it out of that building, and that was something worth celebrating, worth taking good care over those final floors”. Last Man Down – The fireman’s story of September 11, Richard ‘Pitch’ Picciotti

To me, this story demonstrates that disabled and non-disabled can be equally safe in any building, with the right equipment, training and adjustments of all those involved. Of course we know that thousands of people died at the World Trade Centre that day who could not be saved because most of them were above the level where the planes hit the building. The vast majority of people below that level however were rescued because they were able to exit the building, and many of those were disabled people. People were saved because rescuers were trained, equipment was available and inclusive evacuation plans were carried out correctly.

Organisations should never assume that an employee’s disability would automatically put them at greater risk than others. It’s time to change our perspectives because with training, preparation and the right equipment, anyone can safely enter, use and exit a building.

The reason I’m bringing this up now is that this week I’ve been catching up with my good friend and former colleague Bette, who I worked with at ASB in Philadelphia.

Hearing from her again reminded me of the time when we had a fire alarm at the ASB offices in downtown Philly. Bette, who is blind, led her group of blind life-skills students, from the 8th floor to the ground floor assembly point via the emergency staircase. Even in the lawsuit-conscious US of A, the building manager explained to me that Bette had been the best person for the job as she knew exactly how to direct and help fellow blind people to safely exit the building. I smiled to myself in that moment as I learned a powerful lesson of never assuming anything about disabled people’s ability to be safe: the phrase ‘the blind leading the blind’ understood in the traditional sense could not have been more redundant in that context.

We still have a long way to go in making organisations understand H&S legislation and how safety at work coexists with disabled employees. Yet, this is easily achievable with appropriate training, equipment but most of all, through an inclusive attitude. Changing perspectives and helping towards disability inclusion is the challenge that motivates us trainers especially when in the past we have been told we were a safety hazard ourselves on the grounds of our disability.

My feeling is that we need to collect these great examples of inclusion and safety of disabled people in the workplace to use them as weapons in the fight against discrimination – do you have any stories of health and safety and inclusion that you’d like to share?

Photo copyright of: AndyR at Flickr.

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