Guest Blog: “I am just a normal person with an amazing life”

By Lee Powell
Customer Contact Centre Agent, West Yorkshire Police

“Does it bother me being small? No, I love being small. I don’t think that I am small, I am just a normal person with an amazing life.”

My name is Lee Powell. I am 29 years old and I live with a condition called achondroplasia, which is a type of dwarfism. You may be wondering why I have decided to share my story – well this is because I would like to raise more awareness about my condition and my daily living with the many challenges I face. Most people that I meet ask, “Lee, is your condition genetic related?” and the answer is No. All of my family are average height – my son who is now two is of average height and half the size I am already! My daughter who is due in July is currently measuring as average height, however we are unable to confirm this for certain until she is born.

I was diagnosed with dwarfism at birth, and my parents were more than happy with this – back in 1989 the condition couldn’t be diagnosed from scans during my mum’s pregnancy. Whilst I was living at home, my parents looked for support groups to give them advice and tips, and eventually they found a charity called Restricted Growth Association (RGA) UK. It was when I was 12 years old that I noticed my legs was starting to bow, and I had to go to hospital to get this checked out. I spoke to a doctor who advised that I needed an operation on my legs to rectify this, otherwise I would end up in a wheelchair quite rapidly, and ultimately the decision was mine if I wanted to have the operation. I instantly said no, but two months down the line I thought “I can get time off school, so I will have it done”. I then arranged with the doctor to go ahead with the operation.

The operation date came and I thought to myself “Have I made the right decision?”, and I thought “Yes, with the added bonus of having additional time off school!” I had my operation, and the next day the staff at the hospital advised me not to get out of bed until the Monday; however I stated to them that I wanted to go home, so I got up and did what I needed to do and was discharged on the Thursday. The following Monday morning my dad was like, “You ready for school?”, I was like “Er… I suppose!”, so I went off to school. The recovery process then started, and it was a very challenging time as I need to re-learn how to walk and mobilise, which I eventually did.

After I had recovered fully from my operation, I got involved with the Dwarf Sports Association, an organisation for people with my condition and other types of dwarfism. I initially entered a couple of events for a laugh, and ended up winning a couple of gold medals! I was then asked in 2011 to go to Canada to represent the UK. I thought, “Wow, yes I will go”, and I won one silver medal in swimming and one gold medal in football. I have continued to partake in sports when I can.

With my condition, every day can be a challenge with regards to the pain and the ability of what I can do. For example, some days I can walk and other days I am bed-bound due to the amount of pain I am in. In 2016 I started to suffer with pains in my back which were getting very strong – I ended up becoming paralysed, and my wife requested me to go to hospital to undergo spinal surgery. The spinal operation was carried out at Sheffield hospital and released a couple of trapped nerves in my back. After the operation I was advised by the hospital to stay in for at least a week, however the next day I was discharged as I had done everything that was required of me to meet the criteria to be released. I had to learn how to walk again and mobilise, which was a challenge – however I never gave up, and I managed to get back on my feet shortly after. Currently I am using a walking frame and a wheelchair, depending on the severity of my condition – however there are still times where I struggle to get out of bed.

In 2015 I met my wife Danielle – we eventually got married on TV and had one child. With a second child on the way, to this day I haven’t regretted any part of my life. I must admit though that without Danielle I wouldn’t have been able to walk again.

In 2017 I applied to join West Yorkshire Police as a call handler, and I thought to myself “I have no chance of getting into the police service with my condition”. Once I submitted my application, a couple of weeks later I got an email asking me to come for an assessment and interview. When I was in the interview and the assessment I was made to feel like “Lee” and not a disabled person. Everyone treated me like a person and not someone who has a disability – they asked me if I needed anything changing if I was successful. I advised them that I would need certain reasonable adjustments, and when I started these were put in place without any hesitation or questions. So I then started my journey with West Yorkshire Police.

My wife asked me recently, “Lee how are you finding the police, are you fully enjoying it?” I replied, “Yes I love every minute of it, I am now part of the blue team and should have come to the police years ago.” I am always eager to go to work and I feel like I am part of an amazing team.

I also get asked the question, “How do I deal with my daily life?” I just reply that you only live once, so make the most of it. If you have a dream, the only person stopping you achieving the dream is yourself – everything is possible.

If you have any questions or would like to learn more about my condition, please feel free to get in touch via Twitter at @djweeman89

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High Court ruling on disability retirements and injury pensions

The High Court has ruled that police officers retired due to disability should not have to be reassessed by a doctor in order to qualify for an injury pension. This follows a challenge by former Cheshire Constabulary officer Mark Evans, who retired in receipt of a disability pension but was later refused an additional injury pension, following a medical assessment arranged by his ex-employer.

The ruling established the principle that officers retired through permanent disablement should not be subject to later medical challenges in respect of their entitlement to a pension.

Futher reading:

Police Oracle article (registration required)
Injury On Duty Pensioners Association article
Analysis by David Lock QC (LinkedIn)
High Court decision (British & Irish Legal Information Institute)

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Welfare – or well unfair?

Are sickness absence policies in policing counterproductive to the welfare agenda?

by Gavin Hales
Senior Associate Fellow, The Police Foundation

Last year, I asked if a mental health dam in policing is starting to crack, highlighting the findings of two pieces of research, respectively by the Police Dependents’ Trust and Police Federation for England and Wales, which laid bare the extent of mental health issues experienced by those working in policing.

Today there’s a welcome and growing focus on the welfare and wellbeing of the police workforce, with some important looking initiatives being developed including Oscar Kilo and a national police welfare service (if the pilot is a success). In September the Police Federation launched a ‘nine-point stress plan’ intended to help forces better prioritise officer welfare, and then earlier this month the police minister Nick Hurd MP chaired a roundtable on police wellbeing, both of which have given the issue greater prominence.

It’s not entirely clear what the catalyst has been for this shift, although the end of performance targets in policing has certainly created the space for different conversations about police priorities, leadership and ‘what’s important’. At the same time, the cloud of stigma around mental illness has started to lift in policing, reflecting changes in wider society.

More generally, the combined pressures of austerity and changing demand have increased workloads – especially of highly emotionally demanding work such as public protection. As the research findings mentioned above attest, these processes have been taking a toll that cannot be ignored.

It is also suggested that some responses to austerity, such as closing canteens and single crewing, may have had unintended consequences, including weakening the scope for informal peer support. I’m also told that at least some Forces have cut their welfare services, which amongst other things means that officers and staff requesting support are apparently having to wait longer to get it.

One area that seems perhaps not to have moved with the times is Force HR policies around sickness absence, in particular where someone taking a number of periods or days off work for sickness in a year may be subject to Unsatisfactory Performance or Unsatisfactory Attendance Processes (UPP or UAP) and may even become automatically ineligible to apply for promotion or transfers to other roles the following year. If I have understood the process correctly from descriptions provided by serving officers – and I appreciate it is likely to vary between Forces – these are often default HR policies that line managers or supervisors have discretion to set aside but generally do not (HR are the experts, right?).

There are difficult balances to be struck. While it is of course entirely understandable that employers want to deter abuse of sickness benefits and maximise workforce productivity, especially when paid for from the public purse, I can’t help wondering if these processes are designed – or at least applied – backwards, and may in some cases be counterproductive:

– Backwards, because they seem to be opt-out systems for line managers and supervisors, risking lots of genuine cases being caught up in default UPP/UAP, rather than opt-in for those where there are particular concerns, for example that someone may be ‘playing the system’ and taking sick leave when they are not in fact ill. One officer with long-term PTSD recently described to me their frustration that four short periods of illness in the last year (three unrelated to their PTSD) were being responded to with a meeting called by HR, focusing on a handful of days away from work rather than all the time they had been productive despite their work-related mental health difficulties. Amongst other things, these processes may have important consequences for perceptions of fairness at work (and therefore ‘organisational justice’).

– Counter-productive, because serving officers tell me that they encourage people who are ill to take annual leave or go to work, risking both their own health and that of their colleagues and accordingly a net cost to both individual and workforce productivity. I know from my own experience, for example, how important a few days off can be to deal with an episode of stress or anxiety, and conversely how unhelpful ‘struggling on’ can be.

Last year’s Welfare Survey by the Police Federation for England and Wales – specifically the officer absence behaviours report – sheds some useful light on the way these processes may be impacting on the workforce, highlighting the frequency of both ‘presenteeism’ (90% of respondents had turned up for work when ill in the previous year) and ‘leavism’ (59% had used annual leave to mask a period of physical illness, 42% psychological illness). Neither seem to be signs of a ‘healthy’ approach to sickness management and welfare, although I acknowledge that they may partly reflect individual values and wider cultural factors, for example the commitment of individual officers to the police mission and their loyalty to colleagues.

Most police officers and many police staff do difficult jobs that can often be physically and emotionally demanding and at times take a heavy toll on their physical and mental wellbeing. If the current focus on welfare is to make a meaningful difference, it seems reasonable to think that it needs to extend beyond support services – as vital as they are – into the tangled fabric of Force policies, practices, values and cultures. A review of HR policies relating to sickness absence might be a good place to start. ∎


This article originally appeared on the Police Foundation website – it is reproduced here with kind permission of the author

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