Disability History Month 2021: What lies on the inside counts

by Simon Nelson
President | Disabled Police Association

Welcome to my latest one-page blog which is once again written in the hope that it will generate discussion and awareness of what it is like to live with a range of conditions that fall under the banner of ‘disabilities’, whether they be physical or neurological differences. As always, I appreciate your support and thoughts – please continue these important discussions with others.

As we are coming into Disability History Month, which curiously spans across two months and for four weeks, I was keen to reflect on the national theme for this year, ‘Hidden Disabilities’. I have mentioned previously how ‘disability’ is considered by many to be a disempowering term, hence it is not surprising that the vast majority of those with relevant conditions choose not to refer to themselves as ‘disabled’. Whichever the term used, I am proud to be part of such a tenacious community.

The usual language now includes ‘hidden’ perhaps suggesting the person who lives with them is not being entirely upfront, therefore needing to ‘declare’ or ‘disclose’ what they live with. “Hang on!” you might say, “that’s being a bit wokey isn’t it?!” No, it is important to understand that so many with disabled conditions do well to manage flare-ups, set-backs and regular pain etc., yet their confidence and willingness to share is influenced by our collective ability to create a psychologically safe place for them to trust that they can live and work as their true selves. Their conditions, like mine, may be less obvious but with enough supportive curiosity we may discover the impact on them – we work in very challenging businesses, so mutual support and respect needs to be everyone’s business – if nothing else, be kind.

With a less visible disability an individual can usually chose whether to share that personal identity with others or not. These are circumstances we share with the LGBT+ community and we know of some disabled officers whose disabilities were ‘outed’ when the fitness test was introduced – thankfully support has improved in some police forces but we still have some way to go. The willingness of others to be open about their true selves is often influenced by ‘nudges’ in our workplaces, for example a team who mock a colleague’s condition (even if it is referred to as ‘banter’) and a supervisor who condones it, is a nudge away from them being willing to share and possibly towards leaving our service (a retention risk for all protected groups); whereas routinely witnessing support, respect and inclusion for others who are different whilst also seeing derogatory conduct addressed, is an encouraging nudge towards sharing.

We sometimes forget that whatever we invest in our physical and mental fitness, good health is still a privilege that could shift, and our perspectives altered as a result. With a new normal retirement age for police officers being 60 years old, the likelihood of acquiring a life-changing injury or illness year-on-year increases exponentially – this is worth remembering if we are tempted to feel we are in any way superior to others or resentful, asking ‘Why should they get more?’, ‘Why should they do less?’ as workplace adjustments. Answer: because the equity that provides allows them to do so much more despite their differences. Those I respect the most tend to leaders who are genuinely interested in supporting others and they might be surprised to know how often it is noticed by their team members… it also leads to more discretionary effort!

We need to remember that we are all different, however some minority groups are more vulnerable to discrimination, exclusion and even persecution. It is often forgotten that around 250,000 disabled people were murdered by the Nazis because they were deemed to be ‘unworthy of life’. Some concerning conscious and unconscious attitudes remain and whilst accepting the differences in agenda, there has been a distinct lack of national concern and media coverage of the disproportionate impact on disabled people during this pandemic – their lives are worthy.

Let’s not allow this Disability History Month to be the poor relation of other history months as it has been across the UK in previous years – please take the time to talk to others about life with different conditions, supporting and celebrating the many diverse abilities they have, as had many famous successful figures in history with disabilities, rather than the usual focus on what they are less able to do. My plea and challenge to the senior leaders of our national public services and private companies is to please shine a light on the 11 million disabled people in the UK who work for them, spend with them and count on them – lets not leave them in the shadows again during these special weeks or indeed the months to come. ∎

Daring to share

by Simon Nelson
President | Disabled Police Association

Welcome to the third of my bimonthly one page blogs of this year which I publish in the hope they will stimulate thoughts and discussion without taking up too much of your busy time. Please feel free to contribute, challenge and share any comments and ideas about the points raised.

For those of you who were not aware, I had a sudden and unexpected diagnosis of stomach cancer following a routine stomach ulcer biopsy which, as a dad of three children under seven and in his thirties, felt catastrophic at that time. Although the survival rates for that form of cancer were not good, it had not spread, and I was otherwise fit and strong enough to endure successfully the six cycles of chemotherapy I started this month in 2004 and eventually, the complete removal of my stomach.

The publication of the Five Trust Tests by PurpleSpace and the start of the Safe to Say campaign has caused me to reflect on the start of my disability journey 17 years ago, and the dichotomy I experienced as a police officer living with his ‘new normal’, wishing to fit in yet needing to adapt to a different life alongside the other 86% of those with disabilities who acquire their condition during their lifetime.

After a year of treatment and recovery I was able to return to work on light duties to the service I loved. I was lucky in that I did not require further medical treatment other than a quarterly injection for the rest of my life, but of course I still had to learn to adapt to the change in my body. To be honest it took around two years to get used to new ways of eating and drinking (a sandwich feels like it used to after a Sunday roast!) but it took around a further three years to work through the impact of what had happened, the new doubts about the future and mourning the physical loss of part of me. A digestive system with less capacity and efficiency combined with less stored energy inevitably leads to increased fatigue as well as constant borderline anaemia and dehydration. Unsurprisingly this can really affect my levels of concentration at times as well as other ways in which I think or speak, but I did not refer to myself as being ‘disabled’.

No one would have guessed from looking at me that I was disabled according to the Equality Act, and as with the many thousands of others with less-visible conditions (we do not ‘hide’ them) we want to fit in and ‘belong’ whilst being afforded compassion and support in order to thrive at work. My home Force has come such a long way from then when disability was almost exclusively associated with illness and the potential for absence. I returned to work and a meeting with Occupational Health was only to agree my phased return to work plan with no discussion about how my life had changed. At times I was mocked when I needed to eat in long meetings, and on the occasions when I started to experience crippling cramps around my back and abdomen I would pretend I was leaving to make an urgent call so I could pace an empty office somewhere for 45 minutes waiting for the pain to ease. One of the most disabling circumstances we experience is not feeling able to go to work as our authentic selves. I was lucky that a few individuals believed in me and encouraged me to become an active operational commander even during the many moments I continued to doubt my credibility and resilience… and still occasionally do.

At that time the Force had an identified ‘Disability Champion’ whose primary interest was disability in the community and there was minimal knowledge or interest in reasonable adjustments, so I knew that being open as being ‘disabled’ could change how I might be perceived and treated – accepting that I hated that label and believed it could affect my future career, I needed to work as my true self. I also wished to play an active part in supporting others who had diverse abilities yet restricted by others who were distracted by what those colleagues were less able to do. This led to me becoming the Chair of our local network, and eventually the national lead of our Association, which is immense privilege. We have a way to go in terms of disability being valued as much as some other diverse characteristics and in some meetings I still have to push to make our voice heard, feeling at times like I am the wasp at the picnic! However, we are making progress.

The Five Trust Tests should be commended to all organisations and clearly sets out what it takes to secure the confidence of their staff , including active support for staff networks, so those who are mentally or physically different can dare to share their identity of living (not necessarily suffering) with those conditions (not necessarily illnesses). It takes more than identified champions, policies and campaigns to achieve that and police forces will benefit from being seen to ‘walk the talk’ before those staff trust there is a psychologically safe environment within which they can bring their true selves to work and be supported to fulfil their potential. We have the opportunity to ensure others are now supported and included, and I will certainly continue to play my part by laying a path for others. ∎

Fit to serve

by Simon Nelson
President | Disabled Police Association

Welcome to the second of my bimonthly one page blogs of this year which I publish in the hope they will stimulate thoughts and discussion without taking up too much of your busy time. Please feel free to contribute, challenge and share any comments and ideas about the points raised.

This time I will share some of my thoughts on the police fitness test, fitness in general and our service commitment to staff wellbeing. This has been the subject of much debate recently including the #WeCops discussion and the important gender perspectives raised by Team #BleepKind on Twitter. During my 27 years of police service I have experienced many positive changes, including the greater awareness and support for wellbeing at a local level and through Oscar Kilo. For many years prior to the introduction of the Job-Related Fitness Test (JRFT) and the Alternative Job-Related Fitness Test (AJRFT) the vast majority of police officers maintained their physical fitness through professional pride, however many including myself had not previously considered the importance of investing in our mental health.

In brief, the JRFT was introduced several years ago as a result of a national review. Anecdotal evidence from some Police Chiefs suggested that some forces were struggling to deliver operational policing due to a critical number of their officers not being ‘fully deployable’. It is incredibly important for the police service to be able to discharge its response and mobilisation responsibilities and I do not in any way suggest that a number of officers should be able to chase and restrain, particularly when they join, but I suggest we need to define accurately the actual deployable capacity required. I do not believe a comprehensive equality impact assessment was completed before these substantial changes to Police Regulations were enacted, as it would have identified the significant and disproportionate impact on those from certain protected groups, including those with long-term conditions that result in a substantial impact on their day-to-day lives (disabilities).

The JRFT is a shuttle run between measured distances, requiring the individual to reach each line and turn back in time with an audible bleep which repeats sooner over time. The AJRFT provides the alternative of a treadmill which increases in gradient. There is a lot of technical information relating to the testing of the individual’s oxygen capacity and efficiency which I do not have the space to explain here, but officers are required to reach different levels and duration according to their general or specialist roles. All officers are required to pass the test once a year and if they fail several times they have previously faced the prospect of misconduct procedures or more recently Unsatisfactory Performance Procedures (UPP). Although not enforced to date this also permits a force to remove an ‘X Factor‘ or what is claimed to be an operational element (8%) of an officer’s salary and even exit them from the service under ‘Capability Dismissal‘.

JRFT guidelines actually define the purpose of the test as being a Health and Safety requirement prior to taking part in police safety training, which is the same core package for every officer irrespective of role – we need to consider how proportionate and necessary that is. The test is usually taken on the beginning of day one of the training and the consequences as a result of failure varies greatly across 43 forces. Some allow participation in First Aid training to continue, many send the officer away and others allow a senior officer to assess the specific circumstances of that individual, including any disabilities. Officers who have not shared previously details of their less obvious disability due to being fearful of how they might be treated if they did, have been ‘outed’ by the test and removed from operational duties even though they may be well-respected and effective members of their response teams. Some forces such as my home force have become more measured and supportive in their response to this, including considering reasonable adjustments – others have not.

I am very fortunate in that following the start of my life with a disability in 2005 I have always been able to pass the JRFT since its introduction, however the test is not the motivator for myself and most others to maintain a good standard of fitness. The focus has become the test rather than the importance of being as physically and mentally fit as we can be and in the interests of personal wellbeing. A considerable number of otherwise resilient individuals suffer a disproportionate level of stress caused by having to take the test on the day and these peculiar circumstances sometimes contribute to poor mental health. Now is the ideal opportunity to have a mature conversation about the test, including how our future workforce now has a 35 year career and a normal retirement age of 60, with an even higher probability over time that officers will experience a life-changing injury or illness, as I did. We can still promote fitness and wellbeing whilst ensuring those who can never pass these specific tests are still able to serve their communities with all their experience and many other abilities, I know the public still values.

If we truly value difference there needs to be equity as well as equality, breaking free of some fears and assumptions that those who serve with pride might default to the lowest standards of fitness or ‘try to have the job over’ should the focus shift from testing, to personal continuing professional health development and wellbeing. ∎