Access To Work – not just desks, chairs and ramps

The Access To Work scheme (ATW) from the Department for Work and Pensions is a little known, under-used entity in policing, but it is actually incredibly powerful for keeping disabled officers and staff in work.

The Government-funded scheme aims to assist employees and employers by providing practical advice and support to help overcome disability-related workplace barriers. It can also provide grants towards extra employment costs beyond ‘reasonable adjustment’, such as physical adjustments to the working environment.

My personal experience is that this scheme is often misunderstood and under-used, especially in policing. Those supervisors, managers and leaders who know of the scheme, often know very little about how it actually works.

For example, I have seen several people advised by their managers to contact ATW when the word ‘disability’ starts to arise during management conversations. Other than the suggestion to contact ATW, there is then very little interaction on the subject from the manager. Although it is the employee that must self-refer to the scheme, by no means should the involvement of the manager cease at that point, after all, it is the line manager who will continue to manage the person and to some degree their impairment (or the effects of) in the workplace.

Once the individual has self-referred to ATW, an assessment will be arranged with an independent assessor employed by ATW, who will visit the individual in the work place to assess their needs in terms of adjustments to overcome barriers at work.

In policing, I most often see this scheme used for people who might require an ‘ergonomic assessment’ of their workspace, such as their work station including their desk, chair and access needs. This normally results in recommendations for specific adjustable office equipment, which provides better ergonomic support.

This is a good and proactive use of the scheme, but its limits are not defined merely by desks, chairs and ramps.

I recently met with Stuart Edwards, the ATW Strategy Lead at the DWP, to talk about what else the scheme can offer for policing and the emergency services.

Stuart stated, “The scheme is capped at £41,000 in grants per person per year for work place support.”

He went on to talk about the current service distribution of the scheme, “Just less than a third of the budget is spent on transportation, such as taxis for those who cannot get themselves to work. Just less than a third is also spent on British Sign Language interpreters, with the remaining third spent on support workers (e.g. job coaches and social care). The small remaining proportion of budget is generally spent on physical equipment (e.g. workplace adaptations) and mental ill health support.”

Immediately we can see that ‘desks and chairs’ are a very small proportion of the support that ATW provide. I have previously blogged on the mental ill health support which is provided by Remploy, so I probed this a little further with Stuart.

“The mental ill health support does not have to involve the employer,” he stated. “This support can take place whilst preparing to return to the workplace, remotely, or with the support of your employer in the work place.”

Having assisted a vast number of officers and staff in policing who are seeking adjustments other than chairs and desks, I have found one of the greatest challenges to be the acceptance of decision makers to trust in the adjustments the individual is asking for.

An example of this being where I have assisted people with conditions such as ME, fibromyalgia and other fatigue-inducing conditions; where the individual is trying to find a manageable working pattern to allow them to continue working, juggling family life and providing enough time for much needed rest. Unfortunately, I have seen a lot of suspicion from decision makers when the request involves things such as working closer to home, compressing hours or changing working patterns. It often appears that the decision maker is thinking that someone is trying to ‘pull the wool over their eyes’. Even when I have assisted in mediating such discussions, the mere fact that I have been asked by the individual to assist them, often raises suspicion further.

I appreciate that a small minority of people can use certain situations to their advantage; this is natural and is part of human nature. However, on the most part, honesty and integrity is also a part of human nature, especially so in the police service.

I also appreciate that it can be very difficult for someone who does not have an impairment to completely empathise with someone who does. As a sufferer of fatigue myself, I know how truly frustrating it is for people to confuse ‘fatigue’ and general ‘tiredness’. Imagine you have run a marathon or you are jet-lagged after flying home from the USA. Imagine how that would feel. Now imagine feeling like that all of the time. Imagine going to bed, waking up and feeling worse than when you went to bed – every single day. That is fatigue.

I digress.

So my point is this – it can often be a really hard time for an individual to convince a decision maker that they are being genuine and really do need those adjustments, even if it just on a trial basis. I think the problem lies in the Command and Control nature of policing. The strict rank structure and top-down pyramid approach. In general, my observation is that those who are more senior find it difficult to completely accept what a subordinate is asking for when seeking reasonable adjustment. This is a natural mind set given the nature of policing, rank structure and having to balance business need with personal need. It can seem like a hard decision to make.

In fact, the decision to provide such adjustments is easy and makes perfect business sense. Providing the most conducive working conditions for someone with an impairment or long-term health condition will enable you to get the very best from that person.

We could make things much easier, less stressful and more workable for the individual if their needs were just taken on face value, with careful monitoring and review taking place thereafter to ensure the continued appropriateness of the adjustments.

I know this is a difficult mindset to change. This is where I believe the access to work scheme can help.

Expert opinion trumps personal opinion

I explained this scenario to Stuart and asked if this was something that ATW could assist with, asking if the work place assessments could include recommendation on other adjustments such as working pattern and distance of travel etc. Much to my delight, Stuart confirmed the scheme could be used in this way, especially as ATW is increasing in capacity over the coming months.

Therefore my recommendation is this:

When considering any form of reasonable adjustment requirements, seek the advice of external experts such as the ATW scheme. It is at no cost to the employee or employer.

Expert advice will provide strong evidence of the need for the adjustment and may even be able to suggest other alternatives you have not previously considered.

Remember – Access To Work is not just about desks, chairs and ramps, it is about all forms of workplace adjustment.

Jamie Mills
General Secretary

This article has been written based on personal opinion and does not necessarily represent the views of the Disabled Police Association.