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Disability – diversity, innovation and resilience

Originally published on 3rd December 2020 in recognition of International Day of People with Disabilities.

My good friend Mamading Ceesay once described himself to me as an evangineer. I hadn’t heard the word before but immediately felt that this was the right blend of science and values for the hybrid professional of the 21st century. The engineering professional of the 20th century didn’t need to worry too much, they could design and build in near isolation from values. The engineering professional of the 21st century cannot. Now more than ever they need a green literacy to mitigate climate change and resource depletion and a social consciousness to understand their role in resolving inequality. Under such demands there is an easy tendency for developers to make it someone else’s professional responsibility. The architect could perhaps specify the environmental stuff and the Head of HR ensure compliance with equalities legislation and keep the lawyers off our backs. But suppose the real prize was not to hand this knowledge over but to be the evangineer yourself. The prize is changing; it is no longer what was designed and built but why and how. The values are changing too. Firstly they are deepening such as the application of social value to Government procurement of construction and engineering projects. Secondly they are widening as well such as in our understanding of how we successfully incorporate these values into projects.   

Take for example the issue of job applications from disabled people. From January 1st 2021 the issue will form one of the eight social value metrics that a tenderer for a Government contract could bid on. As Kinsey pointed out a diverse workforce is a productive one but this can only be achieved by positive action and not simply relying on prohibiting exclusion. Businesses are in the main still dragging their heels on equality, diversity and inclusion despite the serious skills shortages in our sector. Yet the prize of the why and the how is best won by updating your business’s core mission with the experiences of disabled staff and recruits. These experiences can inform the resilience of your business model or the likelihood that you can innovate ahead of your competitors. 

The whole of construction and engineering relies on resilience thinking. This thinking is continually incorporated in projects e.g. safety factors in loads, tolerances in joints, contingencies in budgets etc. If you apply this attribute to your staff you will want people whose resilience has been stress tested by their life experiences. The next time you have two candidates in front of you and one is disabled take a moment to consider what extra the disabled person has probably had to do to be in the room. 

People who have been continuously challenged to find a coping strategy or adaptation technique in response to their disability are more likely to be resourceful. Innovate UK investigated this proposition and confirmed it in their own report published in July this year. Difference is the essence of creativity, as the astrophysicist Brian Cox put it the whole of life evolved from a single unit of difference i.e. a single mutation. This leads me to ask do we celebrate difference enough in our professional lives or within our project teams? 

This focus on resilience and innovation inevitably invites us to disrupt the status quo or the trends that cannot be justified. We can disrupt trends such as unconscious bias in recruitment. Look around your team meetings and ask yourself if you all look alike and think alike. We can even disrupt who we think we are or how much humility we have when in the age of pandemic cleaners are as important as hedge fund managers. Disruption can be positive and  creative. Just as disruptive technology has been embraced for the innovation it offers so should disruption in stereotypes be embraced for the talent it brings forth.

Finally we can innovate in who we recruit too because we are then more likely to innovate as a business too. These business innovation in turn can and should feed into more inclusive workforces and communities e.g. modern methods of construction (MMC) permit more construction in factory conditions involving more disabled staff, remote sensing technology permit disabled quantity surveyors to remotely price work and smart cities mean that more disabled people can live independent lives within them.

The Disability Resilience Network offers advancement for all because it focuses on how we relate to one another. We invite you to support our own journey to be the people we want to be because you will have more of the people you want to work with. At the end of our journey there will definitely be more evangineers

For more information, please contact:

Philip J Connolly at [email protected]

Founder of the Disability Resilience Network

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