The value of Diversability

by Simon Nelson
President | Disabled Police Association

Welcome to the third of my bi-monthly one page blogs this year and thank you for the support you offer, even if that is simply a desire to know more. The timing for this could not be better as we are now into Disability History Month which runs between the 18th November and 18th December.

This is the time for the pride enjoyed by other groups during their own history months, when they celebrate their identity, difference, rich heritage, and some of the freedoms they have finally secured. Disability should be celebrated and championed with equal fanfare, as those I know who live with those conditions tend to be incredible problem-solvers and resilient achievers in so many ways due to their coping routines and ‘work arounds’. Our routines typically include tough days (over and above someone’s typical) and better days, bouncing back on each occasion to crack on with what needs to be done. This demonstrates why, if a disabled colleague requests support from you, they really need it! We also need to recognise why the term ‘disabled’ is not an easy one to shout out with enthusiasm as it focuses on what we are unable to do rather than all that we are able to do. Terms such as ‘diversability’ and ‘differentability’ truly reflect what those with disabilities or live with neurodiversity have to offer our society and our service. Unfortunately, the Equality Act, which replaced the Disability Discrimination Act, will always bring us back to that familiar term.

It is incredible that it is only 25 years since the Disability Discrimination Act was enacted – let’s pause and reflect on that – only 25 years since it became illegal to discriminate based upon an individual’s long-term, life affecting difference. Unfortunately I believe there are many occasions when ‘disability’ disproportionately evokes stereotypes of the ill or old; and for those of working age, work-avoidance or absence – this influences how policies are written; support offered; and opportunities for inclusion and progression provided. Only the other day I heard a news journalist refer to a disabled person living with a ‘disease’ when they were simply endeavouring to have the best possible life, living with a condition that was part of who they were since birth. ‘Suffers with’ is another regular association – they rarely do, but they often do suffer from intolerance and exclusion. Imperfections are not inadequacies – ‘normal’ is nonsense and on that note the film industry needs to stop associating non-typical physical features as a source of fear.

The theme for Disability History Month this year is Access, which is likely to prompt thoughts of wheelchairs, an image typically associated with disability and although around half of disabled persons have mobility challenges, the access issues are far wider in terms of opportunity. I believe the police service has reached one of the most important points in its history when we need to consider how much we value disability within the service, particularly disabled officers. Only around 17% of disabled persons are born with their disability, so with a new normal retirement age of 60 we can expect an increase in the total number of those who experience a life-changing illness or injury. Our service can chose to ‘exit’ those individuals along with the abilities and experience they have amassed, or support them as representatives of a community we serve. Other protected groups are campaigning for better advancement, representation, and equality – we desperately strive for retention. Of course the service needs some fully-operational number of officers to ‘chase and restrain’ or fulfil other mobilisation commitments, but how many roles genuinely, routinely and typically require that? We also need to understand that disabled candidates should be encouraged to apply to join, to increase difference within the service, if they meet the entry requirements which includes the fitness test.

History is filled with disabled achievers (oxymoron?), including Albert Einstein whose condition prevented him from speaking until he was 3 years old; and Horatio Nelson – my shorter and more famous namesake! We sometimes forget that we continue to write history, so let’s fill it with fairness and inclusion – we can support and unlock diversability talent as well as all of the discretionary effort that comes with that. ∎

Individuality and belonging

by Simon Nelson
President | Disabled Police Association

Welcome to the second of my one page blogs I am publishing every two months, 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 – I do not profess to be an expert and every day is a school day for me!

On this occasion I am going to share some thoughts about language and categorisation and the impact on individuals. Even the term ‘disabled’ feels like a millstone around the neck due to the intimation we are defined in some way as deactivated or largely incapable, when in fact those with disabilities usually have a multitude of other skills, talent and experience as well as incredible resilience as a result of the conditions, fatigue or pain they have to manage on a daily basis. This, as well as the fear of being treated differently or excluded, is why many with those conditions that have a long-term substantial effect on their daily living (Equality Act definition), feel reluctant to discuss this identity with others. Other terms such as ‘neurodiverse‘ or ‘impairment’ go some way to avoiding the stigma of disability – nevertheless the Act affords essential protection, particularly for the only protected group whose members have to prove their identity before they are allowed to belong.

The clustering of diverse groups occurs in an attempt to better manage and understand the characteristics and needs of protected communities in general terms. Disability for example covers a broad ranges of conditions, but then the impact of a permanent injury or condition on each individual often varies greatly. Other groups face similar clustering, such as ‘BAME’ which does little to reflect the vast range of cultures, colours, religions and heritage within those communities; or ‘LGBT+’ for which the powerful rainbow image coveys so much in terms of many different sexual orientations. The same spectrum of identities is true for other groups and we must never lose sight of the individuals behind the labels who deserve our support and protection. This week there was another helpful and interesting debate on Twitter about intersectionality, facilitated by @WeCops which I recommend you read – valuing difference has to mean valuing individual difference for it to offer true value.

Does this mean that diversity, equality and inclusion for individuals is too complex and intractable to support? Not at all: if we recognise that ‘normal’ is entirely subjective and it takes genuine curiosity and interest to allow meaningful support and empathy towards those different to us. Strategies are important but must rely on those with lived experience to inform plans that are more likely to result in lasting improvements. Moreover they have to be confident that those plans will be implemented consistently, without being stymied by politics and regardless of where they work or live. Staff networks offer that lived experience and free advice – the members may be outspoken at times and sceptical following many years of outrage and frustration, but they are highly committed to supporting change for the better and those who genuinely seek it (we know and value many of them).

We all have a common need in that we wish to be recognised as individuals whilst being given every opportunity to belong. This includes those who are not considered to be part of a ‘minority group’, and real risks arise from using derogatory language such as ‘just white middle-aged men’ or ‘male, stale and pale’ (I could add ‘agile’ but I won’t!) They need to know they are valued and we need their support whilst informing them of real examples of discrimination, exclusion and inequality others suffer because of their difference. We also need to recognise it is easy to make assumptions as not all differences are obvious; and the most pressing needs may not relate to someone’s visible difference. I believe an overwhelming majority of individuals at all levels want to do the right thing and should not be swayed by the risk of being labelled ‘politically correct’, ‘Virtue Signaller’ or ‘Woke’ in the negative sense. We must work closer than ever to be the change we want to see and be, the ‘wholehearted people‘ Brené Brown once described: with the courage to be imperfect; the compassion to be kind to ourselves and others; and connecting though authenticity, to be who we really are and enable others to confidently and safely say ‘I am enough’. ∎

Looking forward…

by Simon Nelson
President | Disabled Police Association

This is the first blog as DPA President I will be publishing every couple of months, in the hope they will stimulate thoughts and discussions without taking up too much of your busy time! Please feel free to contribute, challenge and share any thoughts and ideas you have along the way.

It is an immense privilege for me to lead our Association after eight years of being actively involved in disability issues and after deciding to be open about the permanent impact cancer had on me as a senior-ish (!) police leader, but I have to say that after 27 years of service I have never felt so motivated. Someone once said I sometimes expect the police service to progress faster than it is able to, but I believe it is time the service made real progress in the modern age and I feel it is my responsibility to express some supportive outrage when things need to change. Our Association supports tens of thousands of local disabled staff network members, representing them with the benefit of lived experience. We work closely with police unions and statutory staff associations such as the Police Superintendents’ Association, which has actively sought to support and established the first National Executive Committee disability place in its history; and the Police Federation, which is seeking to establish a disability steering group. Many do not realise that our staff association receives absolutely no national funding and only exists due to committed volunteers who have busy ‘day jobs’ and have their own conditions to manage, which often include associated fatigue. Any committee time we have is negotiated locally, and thankfully Sussex Police Chief Constable Jo Shiner is allowing me as the national lead to spend half of my week supporting the DPA committee and members with this important work – it would have otherwise been impossible.

The COVID-19 crisis has caused many of us to pause and reflect on our priorities and attitudes, not least the inequalities faced by BAME communities and the disproportionate effect the pandemic has had on them. This includes some of our members, and it is all too easy to forget intersectionality while our diverse groups strive to highlight their particular needs and challenges. Individuals have specific needs that are sometimes blended across several groups, but this should never be perceived as complexity or an excuse not to support – just ask each of them what they need most to thrive. Quite rightly the impact of the pandemic on BAME communities has been widely commented upon by Government and police chiefs, however there has been considerable silence with respect to the impact on those who live with disabilities. As a staff association we have done what we could to support and highlights concerns, particularly the consequential impact in public on those who live with sensory or cognitive challenges. Without clear national support and direction from the National Police Chiefs Council, Forces are often tempted to use attendance policies as a tool for managing disability, and some have even continued to hold half-pay/no pay hearings during the crisis.

I hear much about the importance of valuing difference and I do believe a majority of colleagues at all levels genuinely desire that. However, without a comprehensive national diversity, equality and inclusion strategy within which all protected groups can recognise their needs, and associated action plans that drive discernible improvements, it is particularly difficult to feel optimistic for the future of disability in policing – where is it valued in national plans, particularly in relation to officers? If they are safe to be proud of that identity and supported with their challenges, the police service will unlock all of the capacity available through the many other skills, experience and abilities they possess.

The DPA seeks to be part of the solution and to work with a dedicated NPCC Lead for disability to find a way forward for disabled colleagues who often fear for their job security or how they would be perceived if they shared the disabled identity they should be proud of – I hope that might happen soon. ∎