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The Impact of Building Design on Evacuation of Persons with Disabilities

By Keith Christensen and Patricia Salmi

Individuals with disabilities represent a significant, although often overlooked, portion of the population in emergency evacuations from buildings. Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines require that provisions for accessible evacuation or exit must be made; however, failures in meeting the evacuation needs of individuals with disabilities continue to occur (Christensen et. al., 2007). These failures may be attributed to evacuation policy and planning that emphasizes helping an individual with disabilities adjust to the environment, rather than adjusting the environment to accommodate the individual (Hahn, 1985). During evacuations, it is the design of the environment that creates the majority of evacuation barriers. For individuals with disabilities, their families, and service providers, it is important to evaluate environments for clear and easy movement to safety during emergencies.

Universal Design is a useful tool for evaluating and designing buildings to better support the emergency evacuation needs of individuals with disabilities. Universal Design is an approach to make buildings usable by the broadest group of users possible, and is based on seven design principles: equitable use, flexibility in use, simple and intuitive, perceptible information, tolerance for error, low physical effort, and size and space for approach and use (Story et. al., 1998). The list of suggestions in this article incorporates Universal Design principles and can be used by individuals, their families, and service providers to evaluate buildings for clarity and ease of movement to safety during times of emergencies.

Spatial Organization

Spatial organization or building layout is critical during building evacuation, either facilitating or inhibiting movement to safety, and relates to the Universal Design principles of equitable use, simple and intuitive, flexibility in use, and tolerance for error. Key points to look for in spatial organization include:

Use of Signs

Signs are useful in communicating necessary information and are an important element for emergency building evacuation related to the Universal Design principle of perceptible information. The following describes building sign placement and desirable characteristics:


Use of landmarks is important during evacuation and provides useful and accessible building information to people with disabilities. Desirable characteristics of landmarks that help mark a path and make the space memorable include the following:


Exiting a building during an emergency can be a difficult experience for anyone. By following the recommendations provided and the principles of universal design, buildings can more readily accommodate the broadest group of users, to the greatest extent possible. Building universally designed exit features into environments not only makes good sense, but also offers the promise of increasing the safety and welfare of all, including persons with disabilities.


Christensen, K.M., Blair, M.E. & Holt, J.M. (2007). The built environment, evacuations, and individuals with disabilities: A guiding framework for disaster policy and preparation. Journal of Disability Policy Studies, 17(4). 249-254.

Hahn, H. (1985). Disability policy and the problem of discrimination. American Behavioral Scientist, 28(3), 293-318.

Story, M.F., Mueller, J.L., & Mace, R.L. (1998). The universal design file: Designing for people of all ages and abilities. Raleigh, NC: North Carolina State University, Center for Universal Design.

Keith Christensen is a Senior Research Associate and Landscape Architect with the Center for Persons with Disabilities, Utah State University, Logan. He may be reached at 435/797-3997 or Patricia Salmi is a Research Associate with the Research and Training Center on Community Living, Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. She may be reached at 612/625-0171 or


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Retrieved from the Web site of the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota ( Citation: Moseley, C., Salmi, P., Johnstone, C. & Gaylord, V. (Eds.). (Spring/Summer 2007). Impact: Feature Issue on Disaster Preparedness and People with Disabilities, 20(1). [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration].

The PDF version of this Impact, with photos and graphics, is also online at

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