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Person with Wheelchair Disability

How Universities Can Better Protect Students with Disabilities

Universities Protecting the Safety and Wellbeing of those with Disabilities

It’s often said that Universities are effectively a mid-sized city, with a very diverse community of students, faculty, staff and contractors migrating to and from campus day and night.  University officials strive to achieve an inclusive culture that accommodates all individuals, including those with physical or mental disabilities.

Universities must have a plan in place for supporting the safety and wellbeing of the disabled, which is often compounded by the characteristics of a particular disability. For example, UK Universities (UUK) are required to have a PEEP, or Personal Emergency Evacuation Plan, which is an ‘escape plan’ for individuals who may not be able to reach an ultimate place of safety unaided or within a satisfactory period of time in the event of any emergency situation.

As a result, campus security and welfare teams need to have the systems in place that can support the entire university community and reinforce its positioning as a safe place to live, learn and thrive for everyone.

Regulations Supporting those with Disabilities

The need to support those with disabilities is reinforced by a variety of regulations across the globe, including the UK’s Equality Act1 (which incorporated the former Disability Discrimination Act), the US’s ADA2 and Australia’s DDA3. Those with disabilities are characterized as those with a physical or mental impairment, which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on the individual’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

Challenges Tied to Supporting The Needs of those with Disabilities

Although universities are typically ardent supporters of those with disabilities, there are numerous challenges associated with coordinating their safety, welfare and security. These challenges include:

  • Identifying all those persons with a disability
  • Understanding the nature of the disability of each person and the type of support they’ll need in the event of an emergency situation
  • Knowing the real-time location of each student or faculty member with a disability or complex support need, so that in case of an emergency, first responders and fire wardens can locate them and respond accordingly, especially for those with a mobility impairment who can’t freely evacuate from the building via stairwells when lifts/elevators are turned off.

There’s actually no legal obligation for individuals to disclose this information so it’s incumbent on a level of mutual and trust between the university and the campus community in which those with disabilities perceive an added level of safety or protection tied to their cooperation. At York, we’ve created an opt-in user group for notifications to those with PEEPs.

One particularly challenging situation is to identify those that have a temporary mobility issue such as those who have broken a leg or recently had surgery.  The individuals are particularly problematic as they’re not accustomed to look at the closest means of escape and haven’t considered how their temporary mobility can impede their ability to evacuate themselves. Safety and Safeguarding teams at universities need to create awareness among this community and ensure they’re educated to ensure they’ll have the means to safely evacuate in case of an emergency incident e.g. a fire.

Risk Exposure Tied to A University’s Current Limitations

University officials are only now beginning to recognize their risk exposure as some systems have several limitations.  For example, traditional standalone systems direct those with disabilities to a fixed location, instead of an egress point based upon their actual location. Traditional systems direct those with disabilities to go to a refuge point on a stairwell, but they may not have the capacity to get to this location without assistance. In this case, the those with disabilities may attempt to call for support (if they know the correct number for assistance), wait for the call to be answered, describe their location, describe the nature of assistance required, and then the security team responds if and when they have the resources to do so. This approach costs precious seconds and even minutes which can dramatically alter outcomes.

How Universities Can Better Serve Those with Disabilities in Case of Emergency

By taking advantage of new advancements in technology, universities can address the challenges described above, while also mitigating their risk exposure. One such safety and security technology is SafeZone, offered by CriticalArc. To illustrate how SafeZone can assist, we’ll cover three different scenarios and how SafeZone greatly enhances the capabilities of campus safety services or campus support team to respond in the event of an emergency incident.

Those with a Hearing Impairment

While mobile, the most significant problem during emergencies for those with a hearing impairment is immediate notification of the emergency since they can’t hear the alarms. To address this, sometimes those with a hearing disability are given pagers, but that requires a separate system to monitor and usage is inconsistent. Alternatively, special signs are installed in their residences, but this is expensive and provides no value when they’re in class, the cafeteria, or just walking around campus.  Other solutions are more cognitive i.e. a vibrating pillow that is triggered when a fire alarm goes off.

With SafeZone, the hearing impaired will receive emergency notifications on their smartphone, which they tend to carry everywhere with them. SafeZone issues a visible alert with an audible tone and vibration so that the hearing impaired will know there’s an alert and can look at their phone for specific instructions i.e. evacuate or hide in place. This is especially useful if they are working/studying late and don’t have the benefit of prompts from others. In addition, the safety and security teams can create a list of those with a hearing disability so they can check-in with them and proactively verify they’ve received the alert and evacuated as instructed. SafeZone is also working on enhancements to improve how it interacts with Android’s built-in screen reader for the partially sighted; closely followed by similar enhancements for iOS.

The important thing to realize is that there is no one ideal solution.  Instead, each organization needs to evaluate a range of technological safety solutions and select those best suited to meet their needs.

People Who Use a Wheelchair

There are different levels of mobility and independence among those that are physically disabled but in general, the obvious challenge with this community is how to ensure they have the means and support to evacuate, such as in the case of a fire. The reality is that campus safety and security resources don’t have insights on the real-time location of these individuals in the event of an emergency incident. Most universities tend to build their evacuation plans based on the person in a wheelchair being in their primary residence, but of course, this is often not the case so there’s a gap in planning.  Furthermore, those with disabilities are sometimes not able to get to the evacuation point or muster location on their own when the lifts/elevators are not functioning, or due to obstacles tied to the emergency. In this instance, first responders need to know the location of the individuals attempting to evacuate so they can render assistance.

With SafeZone, in the case of an emergency incident, those in a wheelchair can raise an alert with the touch of a button on their phone, instantly relaying their identity and location to the safety and security teams. They can communicate the nature of assistance needed, and as a result, a resource can be deployed much faster to assist.

People Prone to Seizures

Most people associate seizures with those that have epilepsy, but there are other circumstances in which seizures can occur such as drug overdose, alcohol withdrawal, preeclampsia, low blood sugar, or a psychological condition. For illustration purposes, we’ll focus on the scenarios where there’s an individual that is known to be prone to seizures. When an individual experiences a seizure, it’s alarming for those around them, and the tendency is to panic.  Some may have the knowledge and experience to intervene and stabilize the individual to reduce the chances they harm themselves. Others may call for an ambulance (many often do), and this can result in an excessive number of ambulances being sent, which can jeopardize the university’s ability to continue to get prompt ambulatory aid. Also, the university security team has no awareness of the situation and as a result, is unable to assist.

With SafeZone, in the case of an emergency incident, when the person senses a seizure is imminent, they can use a SafeZone wearable device to trigger an alert to the campus security team, immediately relaying their identity and location, or a student can raise an alarm on their behalf. As a result, resources can be deployed much faster to assist. Some advanced universities are also deploying the SafeZone Indoor Positioning Solution so they can identify the location of individuals inside a large building. For example, instead of knowing the person experiencing the seizure is in the Student Union building, they’re able to see they’re in the Student Union building, on the 5th floor, west wing, outside main conference room. This real-time situational awareness is relayed to dispatch as well as the first responders on patrol, which is a game-changer for the security team, enabling them to locate the individual faster and render assistance faster.

Also, the individual prone to seizures can easily fill out their profile using the SafeZone App so the security team knows their name, what they look like, their medical diagnosis, instructions for how best to respond to the incident, family contacts, etc.  

Solutions to Help Universities Better Protect those with Disabilities

As universities tackle how to best protect those with disabilities, it’s important to understand there’s a willingness by most students to use technology to solve a wide range of issues. In fact, increasingly, students have an expectation their university will provide technology to help solve various challenges such as campus safety. Given this, it’s useful for The University of York to have SafeZone and other solutions in place to meet these expectations and demonstrate we have technology deployed to help enhance the student experience by providing students with a safe and secure environment.

CriticalArc’s SafeZone is one potential security solution to enhance a university’s capabilities to boost safety for all students, including those with disabilities. Driven by the real-time situational awareness it provides, SafeZone has been adopted by universities across the globe like The University of York to help universities protect their students and faculty and support an inclusive culture that accommodates all individuals, including those with physical or mental disabilities.

In conclusion, while universities strive to accommodate the needs of all members of their campus community, there are many unique and critical needs of those with disabilities that many universities struggle to meet. Given regulatory requirements, this is an area of exposure which university officials should closely examine to ensure they are in compliance and able to meet their duty of care.  The adoption of a range of technologically based solutions is one way in which universities can achieve added capabilities and demonstrate a commitment to provide a safe and secure environment for the entire campus community.

[Special thanks to Denis Fowler, Director of Health and Safety Services at The University of York who guest-authored this blog.]

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