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Disability History Month 2021: What Lies on the Inside Counts

PSA Lead for disabled members and President of the Disabled Police Association, Supt Simon Nelson shares a blog ahead of Disability History Month:
 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 choose 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 be 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 – let’s not leave them in the shadows again during these special weeks or indeed the months to come.