In the private sector, it is the norm for employers to create a diverse workplace providing opportunities for everyone to reach their full potential. Yet in the police service and other public sector agencies, when it comes to disability employment, many senior managers haven’t yet realised the organisational benefits that can result from creating such an all-inclusive environment.
18% of the UK’s working age population are disabled – that’s a staggering seven million people. They provide a fabulous talent group full of hard-earned life skills.
Not many people are aware that only 20% of disabled people are born with or develop a disability at an early age. The remaining 80% acquire their difference while they are working, and this places a lot of emphasis on employers to make reasonable adjustments and to consider the needs of their employees. With an ageing population and ever increasing retirement ages there is undoubtedly going to be an increase in health issues. The good news is that the police service has already started to recognise this trend, and we have seen a number of well-being initiatives launched across the UK over the past few years. Keeping people well at work makes good business sense, and that includes providing workplace adjustments for disabled staff. Introducing a healthy workplace environment will encourage loyalty from skilled staff that might otherwise consider leaving the service or transferring to a more understanding Force. Improving well-being will also lead to a reduction in sickness absences.
Our partners in the private sector have shown that employing disabled people can have a really positive impact on the culture and sense of engagement within teams, too. Built-in inclusivity in the company culture can eliminate disability discrimination as difference becomes unnoticed and the norm in the team. There is a lot that the police service can learn from successful businesses: for example, why do we move restricted officers and staff to another role when they become injured or disabled? Why not provide reasonable adjustments to allow them to continue in role doing the job that they very often love? Yes, there are sometimes good reasons why people cannot continue in role, but in many cases the adjustments are not available because of rigid policies or personal views of senior managers. It’s time to think again about resilience, deployment and why only certain people can do things: why historically is it only detectives that are tasked with collecting CCTV evidence and interviewing witnesses after a major incident? Why can’t you be a public order trained officer if you have a prosthetic hand? And why turn down a disabled officer for a position on the robbery squad? These are all cases that we have resolved amicably, but there is a need for much wider consideration of disability within policing.
We need to start by embedding inclusivity in policing culture in the same way that we have done for race, gender and sexuality in the past. Everyone in the police service at all levels needs to “get it” – not just the HR managers and senior ranks – everyone at every level in the organisation. Every manager should be having constructive conversations with their disabled team members about their personal needs; when they do, they will quickly realise that employees with difference can – and want to – do a great deal more than the manager may have assumed. Reasonable adjustments are not just about physical adaptions: flexible working and split shifts can improve productivity and health of the individual. But if practical support is required, it need not be costly to police employers. The Government’s Access To Work scheme is designed to assist disabled employees to undertake a paid role, and there is a huge variety of assistance that can be provided, from workstation adjustments through to support with taxi fares to get to work.
Our disabled colleagues have a great knowledge of their own condition, and are well placed to interact with disabled people in the community, yet we rarely involve our disability networks in local recruitment and retention initiatives, or indeed utilise their life skills to interact with disabled victims of crime. There are great opportunities to improve the service provided to the public if we listen to and involve our own disabled community.
Sadly, in the police service it is standard practice for non-disabled people to make decisions around what is best for disabled people. Think about it: would senior police leaders introduce initiatives aimed at supporting BME officers and staff without consulting and engaging with the BME support networks in the service? Absolutely not – they would have been seeking their counsel and involvement from the outset. But with disability, it’s a different story. In the last 12 months a number of mental health initiatives have been launched aimed at supporting officers and staff in the Service; the first notification that the Disabled Police Association got was when the initiatives were launched. That’s not a moan, but it is an observation about where disability is in policing.
There are some really positive opportunities in policing that, if implemented, will mandate disability inclusion within the Service:
- Forces should sign up to the Government-led Disability Confident scheme that requires evidence of action taken to support disabled employees and service users. It is an organisational-wide exercise that, if taken seriously, will support a change in culture.
- The College of Policing should implement mandatory disability awareness programmes that can be escalated to everyone in the business of policing, irrespective of rank or position within the Service.
- There needs to be a step-change in attitudes towards disability within the police service, and that must be driven by our senior leaders working with disabled people.
If we extend this more widely, those senior leaders must start to think more deeply about disabled people in the community that we serve. By implementing cost-cutting exercises for the public good, are they in real terms alienating some of the most vulnerable people in society? Closing a police station may be a good way of saving money in the short term, but what effect on those people who for reasons of difference cannot drive or communicate other than in person? I’m not suggesting that we should never close police stations, but we need to ensure that whatever public contact is designed to replace that community focal point is fit for purpose. Estates and facilities project managers should carefully consider the allocation of office space, especially where a member of staff has a disability. A recent departmental relocation in a provincial Force placed a wheelchair user at risk of redundancy because their new office was on the second floor without a lift. Yes, an alternative workplace was offered, but what was the real effect on that individual – how did they feel being separated from their colleagues? Positive thinking and advanced consideration of the needs of workforce can prevent such situations occurring in the first place.
If we take accessibility for disabled people to policing services seriously, we ought to consider carefully how we provide engagement opportunities. Many people think that disabled access means providing a ramp and wider doors, but we might also want to consider non-visible disabilities – for example, providing quiet rooms where people with neurodiverse differences can feel more comfortable communicating with the police. If these facilities cannot realistically be provided in an older building, we ought to consider taking our services to the places where they do feel comfortable – which could be at their home or in a welcoming environment shared with a partner agency.
The main point to consider is that everyone is an individual, and when it comes to disability there is no “one size fits all”. But what we absolutely must ensure is that disabled people have a say in what happens to disabled people, irrespective of whether they are service users or employees. Historically, the police service has become much better at engaging with many different groups, but most of them have highlighted that we are missing a big link in failing to engage with those minority groups working as part of the police service. Independent advisory groups are regularly used to assess police contact with minority groups, but it is surprising to find that whilst we are often very considerate in dealing with disabled service users, we are not so good at supporting our own disabled workforce.
In the same way that the private sector recognises the immense spending power of disabled people (an estimated £249 billion in 2016), the police service needs to recognise that it too needs to provide a good service to disabled people. That may mean making reasonable adjustments to make our services more accessible to a much wider group of disabled people – and remember, not all disabilities are visible!
How do we achieve Disability Confidence? How does a police force achieve the right to display the sought after Disability Confident logo? The first port of call is the Government’s own Disability Confident website.
There are many other sources of information but one of the best places to start is with organisations that support disabled people, such as:
It is far from a tick-box exercise, and Forces would do well to engage disabled people in every stage of the assessment exercise. Disabled colleagues and disabled service users can provide immensely valuable insights of their own, and can help us to shape future service provision.
For Disability Confident to have any real impact on the police service, any improvements need to be truly authentic and well-evidenced. The programme has huge potential to make an amazing difference to disabled people interacting with the police in all sorts of ways, but it does need strategic buy-in from national police leaders and those driving police change locally.
Yes, there will be some logistical challenges around making accessibility adjustments for disabled customers or in recruiting and retaining disabled people, but there is a great deal that we can learn from our partners in the private sector who have already travelled that journey.
Yes, there is a fear amongst some managers that they may have no idea how to start to improve the disability agenda in their own organisation, but there is advice and guidance out there, both from the Government and disabled people themselves!
Disability Confident is a an exciting programme that, if implemented correctly, has the potential to achieve a step-change improvement in the relationship between the police service and disability.
President, Disabled Police Association