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Disability in Engineering – Support, challenges and reaching potentials

Episode 1: Disability in Engineering – Support, challenges and reaching potentials

A discussion with Simon Wilkins, a profoundly deaf Design Engineer at BAM Nuttall, about Disability in the Engineering & Technology sectors – We talk about how he has been supported through his career, the challenges he has faced and how to best reach the potential of disabled people in the industry.

Dr Mark McBride-Wright – EqualEngineers (Host)
Simon Wilkins – BAM Nuttall (with the support of an interpreter)

Recorded at the EqualEngineers Engineering & Technology Graduate Careers Fair in Birmingham on the 11th of November 2017.


Listen above or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

Mark: Hi everyone, Mark McBride-Wright here, from EqualEngineers.  Thank you very much for coming along to join us today.  This is our session on disability in engineering, and we work to connect inclusive employers and diverse talent in engineering and technology.  Now, being disabled, whether that be visible or hidden, is an area which is untapped within engineering. [00:00:30].  We do work on sexual orientation; I still think the work on disability is much further behind where we are in that space.  So, we’ve got the fantastic Simon Wilkins, who is an engineer from BAM Nuttall, and we’re going to be speaking to him via his Interpreter, and he’s going to share us some of his insights being an engineer, where [00:01:00] he’s been studying, how he’s been supported throughout his career to date, and, yeah, just how he’s succeeded and continues to succeed in his role as an engineer.  So, Simon, over to you.

Simon: [00:01:16] Hello.  As Mark said, my name’s Simon.  I’m profoundly deaf, and I’ve been deaf since birth.  I studied at Newcastle University, Civil Engineering.  I work for BAM Nuttall as a design engineer.  I started planning and design three years ago [00:01:46] and then I worked for three months on placement, and then moved over to temporary work design, and I work as an assistant design engineer, and two months ago, I was promoted to design engineer.

Mark: [00:02:04] Fantastic.  Do you work mainly in design, then, or have you ever worked on site, and how do you navigate that?

Simon: [00:01:18] OK, so working on site, I always have the interpreter with me, so that person will repeat what I say in spoken English, so that I understand the full environment, what’s happening, I understand the hazards, because the information’s interpreted to me in [BSL], which is sign language, and I’m very observant, as well.  I inform the site of my disability, and [00:02:48] what I need to be able to be there safely, so there’s also risk-assessments that take place to make sure they’re meeting my needs.

Mark: [00:02:56] I think that’s absolutely amazing.  I’m a health and safety engineer by background, and I know how hard it is, even in itself, doing risk-assessments, and how important safety is on site, so the fact that BAM Nuttall are supporting you, I just … there’s a real lack of role models in this area.  It’s … I run a group that looks at sexual orientation InterEngineering, and that’s another aspect of diversity that’s [00:03:26] hidden, and disability, we’re not even scratching the surface in terms of that population that we need to tap into.  I mean, reflecting back on your own experiences, what inspired you to become an engineer?  Did you ever think there were any barriers, given your background, and how did you overcome them and … yeah, OK, that’s three questions.  [00:03:56].

Simon: [00:03:59] So I’ll try and answer your questions as best as I possibly can.  I thought about the … getting to the standard that would get me into that type of work; I looked at ways round those barriers; solutions … and it’s more about working together and trying to create those solutions together.  And it’s about being open about what your barrier and what your problem may be, and as I said, finding those solutions to resolve those issues [00:04:29].  And you should never be ashamed of what you have.  I think you need to be open and honest, make sure that your employer understands your difficulties, and ensure their support is in place to enable you to do your work effectively.

Mark: [00:04:47] What do you think about … there’s a big push in … well, there needs to be a big push … within the recruitment industry, and this is something I’m doing with EqualEngineers; I ask it on my recruiter registration forms … are they signed up to the Disability Confident Scheme by the Government?  What are they doing to encourage people to request reasonable adjustments?  Because it’s very daunting when you try and get into a big organisation, and if you’re starting from a position of perceived [00:05:17] disadvantage, how do you … how do we get disabled people into engineering, and to be saying that they require reasonable adjustments at the point of interview, so that they feel included from the very beginning?

Simon: [00:05:37] I think, well, there’s Access to Work; I’m not sure if you’re aware of that system.  So that’s funding to cover support needs.  So it’s not the employer who has to pay for that type of support for a person with a disability.  So before interviews, I think it’s important that disabled people investigate what support they need, show that evidence, so when you’re speaking with your employer, or potential employer, say, well, I’ve researched [00:06:07] the support needs that I have, and I think that will put your employer at ease, because you’ve got the information in hand.  And I think that demonstrates that you are proactive, that you’ve done your research, that you really want to work for them, and that you’ve already got that support in place, and that the disability shouldn’t be a problem, because all that is investigated, and you know what access requirements you have.

Mark: [00:06:32] Absolutely.  The Access to Work scheme, I … my understanding is that it will only support you once you’ve received a job, getting to and from the place of employment, so actually, it’s more around when you need to attend an interview, getting from A to B.  Getting out your house and getting to the interview.  I’ve heard a panellist recently speak around how they wouldn’t … they were not [00:06:58] eligible for support through the Access to Work scheme from the Department for Work and Pensions, and therefore, she was at a disadvantage of even being able to get to the table to show her skills, to show who she is.  So that’s certainly an area that I will be pushing very hard on with EqualEngineers to improve and change.  So thinking back to when you were a student … sorry, I should give you a moment to [00:07:28] respond to that, actually … is there anything that you want to add to the Access to Work point?

Simon: [00:07:38] So in terms … of access, and what support’s in place, so for me, it’s live captioning.  So that’s captioning of meetings, so I can read through a transcript … and that can also be shared, as well, so they can be used as a form of minutes for myself, so I’m [provided by] Access to Work that support.  And then, do you want to repeat the question again, sorry?  Just making sure I’ve [00:08:08] …

Mark: [00:08:08] The question really, around … I think you’ve answered, actually, the Access to Work question point that I had … this is an area where I think there’s a lot of uncertainty.  People … don’t know how to address it, so it’s about creating that space where employers can confidently address the needs of people with disabilities.  [00:08:38]  There’s a great initiative, called the Recruitment Industry Disability Initiative, and that helps support the … well, the recruitment industry, but also employers, in becoming more disability … well, disability-confident.  You know, having that badge shown on your company, so that [lived] experience of getting to that employer is representative [00:09:08], and very positive, and, you know, they can’t wait to start their job, or they’re enthused to get that job offer.  I’ve just … a question I would like to ask you is around your student experience: so how was it studying at Newcastle University, and how did you support … how were they … how were you support then within your lectures? [00:09:38]

Simon: [00:09:40] So at university, I had Disabled Support Allowance … it’s similar to Access to Work in that it’s funding for students to access lectures.  Well, I suppose it was a little bit better than Access to Work, in fact, because in universities you had disability advisers to ensure that everything was in place for you, whereas Access to Work is more independent; you put that support in place yourself, and then, with Access to Work, it’s … you have to take a proactive [00:10:10] role within that ensuring support is in place for you, whereas at university, it’s all done for you.  And the support I had in place was a note-taker, interpreters for group meetings and discussions, and also a radio aid.  So the lecturer would wear the aid, radio aid, and I’d be able to have direct access to that [sound].  And then, if someone was showing a video, we’d get the videos captioned to ensure that I would access that [00:10:40] information.  And I also had a PhD student, so if there was anything I missed or anything I was unsure about, I needed to clarify, the PhD student would support me to ensure I was on the right track.

Mark: [00:10:57] I think that’s amazing.  That’s really, really great advice to … you don’t have to just be an educational establishment to be providing support like that, and that’s something that … I think you’ve just provided a list of what organisations should look to have in place for … so you get that continuation of support, actually.  I mean, you were a student, so maybe you needed that hand-holding [00:12:27] at that point in your life, so trying to do that … figuring more stuff out for yourself, moving into the professional work environment, do you think that’s … from your viewpoint, is that your responsibility?  And actually, the support that you had at university, is it patronising, upon some elements?  Becoming an adult, a young professional adult.  Or would it be useful and meaningful [00:11:57] for the support that you had at university to be reflected in the support that you have in the workplace?  Or maybe the requirements are different, and I’m mixing two things.  What do you think?

Simon: [00:12:12] I think Access to Work should give you the option.  Because sometimes, a lot of my working time is taken up making these arrangements for support, so that reduces the amount of time, you know, that I am actually working, in comparison to my colleagues.  So if Access to Work did offer that as a level of support, so they made that organisation for the support needs I require, that would save time … you know, bring back time for me to focus on my work. [00:12:42].

Mark: [00:12:42] So, from a … productivity perspective, does that eat into your productivity because you’re spending so much time making arrangements for yourself to do your work?

Simon: [00:12:55] It does, it does.  Sometimes … so Access to Work doesn’t really make it easy for me.  I have to sort of chase them up resolving issues that may have cropped up.  And I think that’s … you know, I think if you’re well … good at organising things, you’ll be fine, but sometimes these issues do crop up with Access to Work that you do need to spend that time to focus on resolving issues that may have occurred. [00:13:25]

Mark: [00:13:27] So can you give us, then, some advice, some advice to me that I can take away to use in my consultancy with getting organisations to the point where that support is in place?

Simon: [00:13:49] So I would say make sure that there’s awareness in place across the disability strand.  You know, address any problems that may be in place, so that people can disclose their disability, because at that point, you may not be reaching the full potential of your employees.  [It’s essential that] employees feel comfortable and happy to disclose any disability they have.

Mark: [00:14:18] OK.  Do you have any final bits of advice you might want to give to the audience, or to people that are listening to this podcast, or reading the transcript from this podcast, as to what they should do if they want to consider a career in engineering, and … yeah, any imparting words?

Simon: [00:14:43] OK, I would say think about what’s happening in that career.  Think about if you were an engineer; what issues, what barriers may you face?  Then further, think about the solutions.  Take a note of these, so that you know you’re addressing those issues before you’ve gone to interview, before you’ve been recruited, that you’re aware, you have that insight of your own issues, your barriers that may be put in place by the particular employment areas.  Like, say, get to know the company … say [00:15:13] how they value disabled employers, disabled people.

Mark: [00:15:20] OK.  I think that’s really great advice.  I’m going to ask the audience, actually, if they have any questions that they might want to put to you.  Do we have any questions from the audience?  So I’m going to come across with the mic, then we’ll have the interpretation, and then we’ll get the answer.  So if you could say your name and what your question is … thanks. [00:15:50]

Male voice: [00:15:51] My name is Anthony, and I’d like to know how do you communicate to people that don’t know sign language?

Simon: [00:16:04] OK, so at work, I have an interpreter, so as you can see right now, I’m signing, and the interpreter’s voicing over what I’m saying to you.  Does that answer your question?  OK, great.

Male voice: [00:16:22] Oh, it answers my question.

Simon: [00:16:26] Lovely, thanks Anthony.  Oh, just to add, as well … communication’s not just about face-to-face communication.  We have e-mails and other ways of communicating with each other, which isn’t an issue for me personally, but any face-to-face communication is done by a sign-language interpreter.  And also, in quiet environments, on a one-to-one basis, I can communicate [00:16:56] without the use of the interpreter.  But for today, because we’ve got a larger audience, I’m not using my voice,  my own voice, which I can use when I’m talking to someone directly.  So today, I thought it would be best to have an interpreter to provide that voice-over for me.

Mark: [00:17:12] So, being deaf from birth, how … what’s that like?  And do you remember … growing up in that world?  That’s a really silly question.  Do you remember … how did you … how do you communicate with the world without that … without … from that starting point?.

Simon: [00:17:40]  OK, so I started signing [00:17:42] from around, well, a very young age, so developed my language till about six, where I went to an aural school, right up until sixth form.  So the … when I say aural school, it was a special school for deaf children … the classes are much smaller, we have teachers of the deaf, and my biggest issue was going from school to university; I think that was a massive transition [00:18:12] point in my life … because I suppose in school we had smaller classes, there was … you know, teachers in the environment that were aware of my needs; there was the care in place … and you’re there for a long time.  But when you went on to university, communication was a big problem for me.  I had a lot of support in place … you know, it was organised, paid for by DSA, I had to make them aware of my disability and what my support [00:18:42] requirements were … and Newcastle University hadn’t previously experienced having deaf students studying there, so I had to provide them with a lot of advice and guidance, to ensure that I had the correct support in place.  So the first year was a bit … you know, it was quite difficult.  But then going on to my second year, the university was more aware of my support, which was then put in place more effectively.

Mark: [00:19:10] I’m going to wrap it up there.  Is there any final bits of advice, little nuggets that you might want to give to people?

Simon: [00:19:21] I would say don’t be afraid of your disability.  And make sure that you know all your needs, and that you know how to address them, and I wouldn’t run away from what you feel those barriers may be.  And be prepared.

Mark: [00:19:37] Brilliant.  Simon, it has been an absolute pleasure.  Thank you very much.

[End of recorded material at 00:19:43]

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