Big Interview: Bridget Burdett.

Bridget Burdett

People with disabilities use roads and buildings too, so why don’t we include them in our designs? We talk with Bridget Burdett, Principal Researcher and Chartered Engineer at MRCagney, as she shares her thoughts on the importance of disabled representation within the profession.

Why are you so interested in disabilities?  

I met Gerri Pomeroy the now national president of the Disabled Persons’ Assembly. Gerri, like myself, is a system thinker. I was struck by the lack of focus in transport planning, on transport for those who find it hardest to move. Also, my dad is partially blind and is now in a wheelchair.

Why should we hire people with disabilities?

Twenty-five per cent of people in New Zealand are disabled. To design roads, footpaths, kerbs and buildings for everyone, the numbers should be the same in our organisations. But they’re not.  In a recent transportation survey, 2% of people identified as disabled.  

We can’t assume able-bodied people know how a disabled person travels, works and goes about their daily lives. I’ve been working in this space for over ten years, but I can still run to the bus if I’m late, or jump over a pothole. People with disabilities can’t do that. I don’t have that implicit understanding of the nature of the challenges people with disabilities face daily. 

How do we attract more people with disabilities to our sector? 

One of the things we can do in transport engineering is to look outside of just engineering for expertise. We should employ people with public policy experience, geography, social sciences, even art degrees – people who are excellent communicators and who have different insights than just engineering. Once you employ more art students, you’ll start to increase the diversity of thinking, and you’re probably are more likely to attract people with disabilities because they’re more prevalent in art degrees!  

Also opening our minds to what’s mandatory in a job application too – is it essential to have an engineering degree to make decisions about transport? Sometimes it isn’t. There’s also scope to work with the disability sector more intentionally.  

Organisations should also be looking at upskilling staff on diversity and inclusion. I recently wrote a guide on how to engage the disability sector in transportation engineering. It shows people how easy it is to incorporate. I think a lot of people have a lot of fear when it comes to engaging with disabled people. They have a fear of not knowing how to communicate, not knowing how they’ll react, fear of being called out. There’s a lot of separation between disabled and abled bodied people – there’s a lot of reluctance to engage genuinely. But after all, they’re just humans.  

So how do we engage with people with disabilities?  

Just like everyone else! Julie Woods AKA That Blind Women says, when dealing with a blind person, it’s about verbalising the alternative text – because blind people don’t have any other cues.  

What do we need to think about when hiring someone with a disability?  

If you hired someone who was blind, you’d need to think about how they’d get into the building, where they’d sit, how they’d access the meeting rooms and whether there’s an accessible toilet.  That’s the unintended advantage of hiring someone with a disability. All of a sudden, you realise how inaccessible the world is! It’s like employing any human. They might have specific needs, but so do all of us, right?  

The disability community has welcomed the current shift to more flexibility from employers to work from home as a result of COVID-19. They’ve been asking for those accommodations for a long time. You can imagine, if you’ve got a good set up at home and a not-quite-perfect set up at work, then having that flexibility is helpful. And also this growing awareness that people can be trusted to make their own choices. I think that COVID-19 inadvertently has taken us a step towards inclusion. 

If you’re a Diversity Agenda member with a great story to tell, please get in touch.

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