British Columbia

Adaptability key to woman with cerebral palsy's success as a structural engineer

When Julia Halipchuk walks onto a construction site, it’s clear she’s one of the people in charge. With a hardhat on top and an iPad showing construction designs in-hand, she surveys the day’s work.

Julia Halipchuk says it's important to know both your limitations and capabilities on a worksite

Engineer Julia Halipchuk says her cerebral palsy has taught her how to adapt in all situations, including her work on construction sites. (Don Marce/CBC)

When Julia Halipchuk walks onto a construction site, it's clear she's one of the people in charge.

With a hardhat atop her head and an IPad showing construction designs in-hand, she surveys the day's work.

But she wasn't always that confident on a construction site. When she first began her job hunt as a structural design engineer, she searched for one based predominantly in an office.

Halipchuk has cerebral palsy, a breakdown in the neural pathways that can affect speech and movement. In Halipchuk's case, it affects the right side of her body; she doesn't have proper use of her hand and walks with a limp.

Because of her condition, she wasn't sure she could fulfil the responsibilities required of an on-site engineer.

"It probably was rooted in a little bit of fear or cautiousness to make sure that I'm not putting myself out for rejection," said Halipchuk from inside a gutted St. Andrew's-Wesley United church in downtown Vancouver — her latest project where she's the lead design engineer.

Julia Halipchuk's current project is the structural restoration of St. Andrew's-Wesley United church in downtown Vancouver. (Don Marce/CBC)

Yet despite her fear, she kept getting hired for jobs that required her to be on site.

And through her work, Halipchuk has learned the importance of identifying both her limitations and capabilities and effectively communicating what they are to her superiors.

In Canada, the employment rate for people with disabilities varies depending on the severity of the condition. While 76 per cent of people with mild disabilities are employed, that figure drops to 31 per cent if the disability is severe, according to Statistics Canada's most recent numbers.

Adapting at work

Structural engineers are responsible for designing the bones of the building that eventually create the shape of the structure.

Half of Halipchuk's work is spent in the office creating the construction designs; the other half is spent on site supervising the construction. 

However, working on site presents several challenges for Halipchuk, chief among them ladders.

"That's probably my biggest weakness," she said, due to the fact she isn't able to maintain a proper three-point contact with her cerebral palsy.

To deal with this challenge, she had to find a way to adapt.

"As long as it's not a tall vertical ladder, I've managed to find a way to climb it in a way I know I feel safe," said Halipchuk.

Julia Halipchuk admits ladders present one of her biggest challenges on a construction, but says she has adapted how she climbs them. (Don Marce/CBC)

When on a ladder, Halipchuk will use her right arm to hook onto a ladder rung and stabilize herself. And when the ladder is too high and vertical, she says she will often swap duties with a colleague, allowing her to focus on groundwork.

Clear communication

 "It's actually been quite easy to adapt to it," said Hardeep Gill, Halipchuk's supervisor at Read Jones Christoffersen Ltd.

He says working with Halipchuk hasn't been any different than working with any other colleagues who might have limitations due to their stature or because of a fear of heights.

Gill says she's always been clear about what her restrictions are.

"If you have that open conversation with someone, there's a very high chance that [the company] will accommodate that," he said.

"Something that you have in your mind might not even be that big of a deal [for the company]."

Julia Halipchuk works alongside her supervisor, Hardeep Gill, while on site at a structural restoration of St. Andrew's-Wesley United church in Vancouver. (Don Marce/CBC)

Halipchuk knows deciding what career to pursue when you have a disability is difficult, but — based on her experience — she says start with some aspect of life you find interesting.

"You will find people and companies that will make a place for you in their workforce," she said.


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