S01 E05 Leaders in sustainability - Meet Dr. Ally Dunhill

Updated: Apr 10

Corporate Social Responsibility entails ensuring environmental, social, and financial responsibility.

Till now we have mostly interviewed leaders engaged in environmental sustainability, knowing that Trianon Scientific Communication is expert in environmental but also social responsibility, it was time that we interviewed a leader in (social) sustainability!.

It is a pleasure to introduce you, Dr. Ally Dunhill. She is not the kind of woman that you meet every day. Her long term engagement towards social equity is one of a kind.

Dr. Ally Dunhill

Dr. Ally Dunhill is a consultant and researcher in the social policy domain, with a particular focus on children, youth, inclusion, and rights. She worked across the education and social care sectors for over 20 years.

Ally is the co-founder of Accessible AD, one of the first Start-Ups in the United Arab Emirates, which aims to make Abu Dhabi accessible and inclusive.

The Sustainable Development Goals have adopted a theme of “leave no-one behind” and Accessible AD is taking this objective seriously and seeks to support efforts in the UAE to ensure everyone can access and participate in all spaces and places.

Accessible AD believes that everyone should be able to access and enjoy all services and facilities with dignity and respect and that this will improve social well-being.

1. Ally is a researcher in social policy

Science- by- Trianon : Dr. Dunhill, please explain to our readers what a researcher in social policy does.

Dr. Ally Dunhill:

At the core of social policy, there are the “five why's” and that is literally the “Why?” five times, because when you ask the first time you get a superficial answer. When you ask “Why?” again, you get a little bit more substance and so on.

5 whys

My aim while working in social policy is to make the world a more equitable place.

I can't be the voice of children and young people with disabilities but I can make sure that I remind the people making the policies that they must include them. I see myself as an advocate in the social policy domain.

2. Ally is an expert in education

Science-by-Trianon: You have worked across the education and social care sectors for over 20 years, do you see any differences between the young generation of today and that of 20 years ago?

Dr. Ally Dunhill:

One of the biggest changes I've seen is that children and young people are more aware of their rights. Some of my research is focused on how rights are taught at school, how the children and young people understand their rights, but also, how being educated about those rights is still controlled by adults.

Adults control what you are taught and how you are taught about your rights within schools.

We're not quite there yet, children and young people do not fully understand their rights yet, but then again understanding right is also developmental.

Depending on their age and their background young people will come to a better understanding of their rights, but they need to be given the right environment, the right space, a safe space to ask questions about their rights and about other people's rights as well.

And that is not always comfortable because children use words we often don't like and some teachers in schools will shut down conversation straight away by saying “No, you can't use those words!”, rather than providing them with an alternative word and explaining why.

I believe there is a lot of work to be done in teacher training, regarding this topic.

The language of children is the language of their parents, their relatives, their immediate social surroundings and that language might not be as politically correct as we would like it to be.

So we need trained professionals who can explain to the children in a language they understand “we don't use that word for these reasons and instead we use that word because of XYZ.”

3. Ally also provides consultancy and training on accessibility to service and facility providers

Science-by-Trianon: Do you remember how you first decided that you wanted to work in inclusion?

Dr. Ally Dunhill:

Yes, I do. I was in the British army. I started my career in the British army and I had to leave because I married somebody of a different rank and that was not permitted at that time. So, when I left I took training in education and I felt really drawn to inclusion.

I then worked in a special school and in different age settings for many years where

I observed children and young people being treated with dignity and respect no matter what their ability or disability was.

But I saw things that made me uncomfortable, such as young people not being supported, young people who had a physical disability but such great mental capacity which resulted in great frustrations because they were not being educated according to their capabilities.

Dr. Ally Dunhill in the British Army

Science-by-Trianon: It is sad to admit, but it is the same all over Europe. Disabled people and not only kids are generally disregarded and under estimated...

Dr. Ally Dunhill:

This is the wrong type of inclusion. I believe that special schools mean segregation rather than inclusion, so while they received an education they were still being segregated from their peers.

Inclusion or segregation?

4. Ally is the co-founder of Accessible AD

Science-by-Trianon: Please tell us how you came to start your own company and why in Abu Dhabi. What has drawn you there?

Dr. Ally Dunhill:

I was working for a UK university. We recruited students from all over the world and two of the places I was lucky enough to visit were Oman and Abu Dhabi.

Oman Musca Zulfa Mosque

I'm an outgoing person, I connect with people easily and I became very good friend with an Emirati lady, Amal, who uses a wheelchair.

Then the government of Abu Dhabi decided it wanted to make life better for people with disabilities. Through the authority of Social Contribution, Ma’an, they advertised a call for proposals from organisations or individuals that could help to improve the life of disabled people, by making Abu Dhabi more accessible and inclusive.

Our idea, Accessible AD was to make Abu Dhabi accessible to everyone, (not just people with disabilities but also those having to use pushchairs, older people and those with temporary ailments) everywhere.

Accessibility makes everybody's life easier. If you don't have to carry your shopping upstairs, if a delivery person doesn't have to take the stairs because there is a ramp then everyone's life becomes easier.

And we won!

We were one of the first ten Start-Ups to set up a third sector organisation in Abu Dhabi.

Science-by-Trianon: What services/products do you provide?

Dr. Ally Dunhill:

  • We have created an app that shows the accessible spaces and places in Abu Dhabi and

  • We offer consultancy and training to businesses, organisations, and government entities on how to make places accessible and why. Not just how, but also why.

The 'how' is easy, that's a tick-list. They take measurements and they build a ramp.

But we wanted more than a ramp.

We work primarily with businesses in the tourism and leisure areas and we wanted to know why these businesses were inaccessible.

Some people answered:

"Oh, we don't get any disabled people so we don't need to make ourselves accessible."

When I visit an organisation or business for the first time, I always visit the disabled toilets and I often find myself demonstrating why these facilities are not accessible.

Many businesses have big disabled toilets with lever bars on the walls, but if those bars are in the wrong place, so they cannot be used to lever yourself from your wheelchair onto the toilet seat.

Once you demonstrate this, many people had an 'A-HA' moment, the penny dropped.

This problem, this lack of understanding, is of course not specific to Abu Dhabi, you find the same around the world. People often think that if there is a ramp, then that space is accessible.

Disabled toilet sign

By the way: In Abu Dhabi, people with disabilities are actually called 'people of determination'.

5. Inclusion is not an evidence

Science-by-Trianon: This is a good example of how important communication is for understanding. 
Where do you think the opposition to endeavours such as yours comes from?

Dr. Ally Dunhill:

The opposition comes from organisations who think they are accessible, but when barriers are pointed out to them, they get defensive rather than wanting to learn more and make changes.

The core here is to explain very well what accessibility actually is and that is best done in personal meetings.

We work in partnership with people with disabilities and a person with a disability is the founder of Accessible AD.
My role is to make sure the barriers that the experts tell me about, the experts being people with disabilities, are explained clearly and overcome.
As I said above, I am not their voice, I am their advocate.
I have to, as the UN put it, I want to make sure people with disabilities have a seat at the table.

The reason why organisations are not accessible is often down to

  • ignorance (“I don't want to be involved in this!”) and

  • indifference (“We haven't got any disable customers, so why should we bother?”).

The way we counter this ignorance and indifference is to point out how much potential review they losing. Explaining the 'silver dollar', i.e. the purchasing power of older persons, and how becoming more accessible can attract more customers.

When we contacted some cafes, restaurants, and shops, most wanted to learn more and work with us to become accessible. But others replied “We are accessible”, when we visit, we often find out this is not the case. In one situation the staff offered to carry a person using a wheelchair up the steps to get into the building. This is definitely not what disabled people want, it is also culturally not acceptable.

Science-by-Trianon: All that sounds like you are sitting right in the middle of the triangle formed by the government, the private society, and the civil society. 
In your experience, which of these corners of the triangle is most ready to move forward?

Dr. Ally Dunhill:

I think society is most willing to move forward, especially with Covid-19, society has found a voice, especially those that have often been and continue to be marginalised. They are really making their voices heard.

Whether they are being listened to I don't know.

But I hear a lot of those voices, certainly within my social media bubble.

Science-by-Trianon: You are definitely addressing the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) such as Nr. 10 (Reducing inequalities) and Nr. 17 (Partnerships for goals). Would you say there are other SDGs that you address?

Dr. Ally Dunhill:

Certainly! Nr. 4 (Education) and Nr. 5 (Gender equality).

I think there is an overlap of women, children, and disabled people when it comes to crises, an intersectionality, and the bigger the crisis the bigger the impact on these groups.

And, although you've mentioned it already, I would like to place some more emphasis on Nr. 17 (Partnerships) because I think none of the other SDGs can be achieved without partnerships.

SDG Goals

Science-by-Trianon: Where would you see the differences in your field between countries like the UAE on the one hand and your home, Scotland, on the other?

Dr. Ally Dunhill:

I often hear people say: “Oh, yes, I've heard about the SDGs, but what are they, what should they mean to me?”

So, I spent a lot of time trying to relate the SDGs to individual lived experiences. There is the notion that the SDGs are primarily for poor countries, and that is not true,

if we achieve the SDGs they will benefit everybody.

6. Positive effects of Covid-19 on inclusion

Science-by-Trianon: You said earlier that "people of determination" were being heard for once. Do you see any other positive effects?

Dr. Ally Dunhill:

In the UAE "People of determination" received a lot of support from the Government. They had their medicines delivered, they did not have to leave their homes to get tested, they had their shopping delivered – they were kept safe.

Not in isolation, but with their families in their homes, and that was seen as a very positive thing compared to how other governments treated people with disabilities.

I am also doing a youth series on LinkedIn where I worked with young people to write about their experiences with Covid-19.

The responses I got from young people from both the UAE and Scotland were really positive with respect to their governments, in particular about the level of communication concerning the crisis.

Science-by-Trianon: Recently, there has been a brief piece on French TV on how facemasks affect deaf people because they can't read other people's lips anymore. We were positively surprised by that. Do you see more of this, more of a focus on people other than ourselves or has that just been a one-off?

Dr. Ally Dunhill:

One of the questions I've asked young people in my series is “What have you done for others during the crisis?” And they've all done a lot, they've helped their neighbours they've helped each other cope.

Young people do so much for others that such a positive portrayal of young people should be promoted and acknowledged.

Science-by-Trianon: And finally, the magic wand question: If you had a wish for the future what would it be?

Dr. Ally Dunhill:

To make sure that we achieve the SDGs because then the world will be a better place. There will be enough food, enough clean water, and laws will be equitable.
I hope the SDGs will be achieved in just under ten years time but there is of course still a lot to be done, and to make them sustainable we have to make sure they are viable on and can be maintained.

Science-by-Trianon: Would you have any concluding remarks?

Dr. Ally Dunhill:

Yes. Could we please change the word 'equality' to 'equity' when working towards the SDGs?