by Simon Nelson
President | Disabled Police Association
Welcome to my latest one-page blog 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.
On this occasion I would like to share some pragmatic thoughts and observations about our use of language and the impact this has; how we might respond to that; and how we may explore ways in which we can finally achieve something better for all. This is also respecting the many colleagues I have met at all levels who genuinely care about others, even if they are not always effective or consistent in how they demonstrate it.
The low points in my working week often include the latest examples of what has been said to disabled colleagues who remain committed to serving effectively in a variety of roles, despite what they need to manage as their ‘normal’. This week has included further examples of my peer group in other parts of the country referring to those with disabilities as ‘the sick, the lame and the lazy’, as well as an officer being asked by one if they had ‘soiled themselves’ due to the way they walked because of their musculoskeletal condition. This occurs across the country, so please do not immediately think of reasons why it would not happen where you work. I have mentioned previously the 2019 NPCC Diversity and Inclusion Survey, delivered by Durham University and revealing, amongst other things, that 42% of respondents with disabilities had been subjected to ‘incivility’ relating to their condition during the previous 12 months. Currently there is still no tangible plan to address this – the impact on individuals continues and some continue to leave.
I need to be clear that much of what happens would not necessarily amount to formal misconduct, and we should recognise that the challenges and routine exposure to trauma experienced by police officers requires cohesive and familiar police teams to cope with that. Within these there is often humour at the expense of others, but I would never wish to see the loss of good humour and supportive humour I have experienced and enjoyed at its best.
It is worth colleagues considering two things: what they say (the intention may be innocuous), and the impact that may have on the individual. Are they making fun of something that cannot be changed, such as a disability, gender, sexual orientation or other differences – a difference that may have caused challenges and derogatory comments for many years? The recipient smiles or laughs in response, but please understand that there is a pressure to do that and beneath that could be a profound effect on their levels of confidence and sense of belonging. Consider how inconsistent this might be with how we feel about them as a valued member of the team when they ask for backup.
Words are sometimes used within teams the equivalent of which would never be tolerated for other protected groups. In June this year the musical artist Lizzo included the word ‘spaz’ in the lyrics for her song ‘Grrrls’. In fairness to her, she responded positively and removed it when objections were raised about its derogatory association with those who live with cerebral palsy and other conditions that cause involuntary movements – but the fact remains that some of these terms are still tolerated and regarded as normal in society.
I have mentioned to Chief Officers and others the opportunity of having a ‘Rethink your Banter’ programme or similar, perhaps produced by the College of Policing, that supports police forces to facilitate discussions about differences within teams and the impact of issues I mentioned earlier. This would not be ‘training’ – simply time to reflect, speak openly and consider the impact of language and behaviour – a team contract supported by professional and supportive supervisors. Yes, this creates a time demand, however the positive impact on individual wellbeing and performance offers a good return on investment.
Finally, I would like to mention the role and responsibilities of staff associations, including the DPA, and the role we can play in this. Very often senior leaders are wary of having conversations relating to protected differences, due to the perceived risks of ‘getting it wrong’ or causing offence. Some conversations include necessary challenges, but I believe it is essential to support others to be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable with what needs to change. In the process of being supportively curious some will get it wrong and how we then respond could encourage or inhibit progress. If we are proportionate in how we react, inform, and give others who are not obviously or routinely offensive permission to get it wrong, we are more likely to achieve the meaningful diversity, equality, and inclusion we seek – through strength in unity and authenticity. ∎