How engineering can become more inclusive for disabled people
Date published

24 November 2020

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How engineering can become more inclusive for disabled people

Date published
Date published

24 November 2020

In this piece Dean Cavanagh talks to us about being a disabled person and working as a built environment professional. He reflects on how a passion for equality and pushing boundaries has shaped his career.

I joined Arup’s Access and Inclusive Environments Team in February 2020 as an Access Consultant. I am part of the newly formed Manchester Team.

I work in all areas of inclusive design. This is predominantly in the UK but includes projects around the world. The work is across all sectors and includes:
  • Buildings
  • Public Realm
  • Infrastructure
  • Guidance and standards
  • Transport hubs
  • Research
  • Consultation and stakeholder engagement
  • Audits and access statements
  • Equality and diversity impact analysis
My work involves a significant amount of design work, attending meetings, consultations, audits and site visits for projects when required. Like many consultants I have been working from home in a virtual world since March 2020.

What adaptions, if any, are required for you to do your job?

I sometimes use equipment depending on the project. The largest piece of equipment I have used is an off-road manual wheelchair which I used to complete site visits for major projects. I would only use this on large construction sites. It lets me navigate uneven ground and muddy conditions.

I have found through experience that the essential factors for successful site visits are communication with site colleagues and planning. This includes mitigating weather and ground conditions.

In recent years I’ve worked as a construction project manager building schools. Improving access to sites makes them more welcoming and supports diversity within the construction industry.  

Do adaptations impact on the kind of projects you tend to work on or specialise in?

No, I am a believer in rising to a challenge by delivering the best outcomes in an alternative way. This is something I have practiced for most of my career to meet my access requirements. The pandemic is currently teaching us all to embrace change and new ways of working to meet society’s new access requirements!

I am an active manual wheelchair user and I have used a wheelchair all my life. I have been attending construction sites since 2004.

In the early days this involved many barriers, but this has slowly changed as contractors have become more socially responsible. I have always met challenges head on and highlighted the need to be inclusive in the process.

When I attend site and there are areas of a building I can’t access I will ask a colleague to record the area on my mobile phone so I can attend virtually at least! I have even considered using a small drone but the need has not yet arisen.

What motivated you to become a built environment professional?

Being a built environment professional is a great career but not necessarily for the reasons you’d expect.  My career path has brought me to inclusive design because of my love of people and my passion for equality.

I strongly believe in removing barriers, both systemic and within the built environment. I think it is really important to push the boundaries both as a disabled person and within our work. Arup is the perfect place to allow me to continue pushing boundaries.

Have you encountered any negative perceptions or stereotypes? If, so how have you responded?

I have had my fair share of negativity and stereotypes in the past. This can range from colleagues making decisions about what they think is best for me to listening to people talk about ‘political correctness gone mad’. I’ve also been overlooked for promotion.

It has been very frustrating at times, but my approach is always to be open and honest with colleagues. I have a range of strategies to tackle issues including setting an example, knowledge sharing, empathy and always with a serving of humour and laughter.

I have found my range of approaches has encouraged colleagues to be more open and not fearful of issues they don’t understand. I like to focus on positivity and have worked on many great projects with excellent feedback throughout my career. This is partly because I never accepted the role society expected me to play, a ‘brave disabled guy’ who is there to make the numbers up!

When I was a child, there were few disabled people as role models. Until the age of ten I wanted to be a professional goalkeeper! My Mum eventually talked me out of the idea.

I like to think my sporting career (a three times Paralympian), my role as a community leader (in the disabled people’s movement and school governor) and my professional endeavours have allowed me to be a role model. This is especially so for my four children and peers.

What would you want the IStructE to do to make engineering more inclusive?

It is really important for organisations to embed diversity at all levels and reflect the communities we serve. It is often said people appoint in their own image which explains the lack of diversity, especially at senior management level.

From my perspective as a proud disabled person, we as a community are only just beginning to catch up with the rest of society after being refused mainstream education until the mid-90’s or later in many areas.

For me being denied an adequate education was far more disabling than any impairment I have had to live with. Segregation also denied our siblings, friends and peers the opportunity to live and learn with us and understand the barriers we faced which is unhealthy for everyone.

Fortunately, we have moved forward and young disabled people now have aspirations which align with the rest of society.

This means more and more disabled people will aspire to be included in every part of society, including engineering.

To make engineering more inclusive I suggest taking actions such as:
  • Monitoring and improving membership of diverse communities including disabled people
  • Better understanding barriers faced by disabled people. This includes a Social Model understanding which states it’s the environment that disables people 
  • Encouraging member organisations to target disabled people for apprenticeship schemes
  • A diverse board membership including disabled people
  • The introduction of positive role models   


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