‘Our members are not just names on a piece of paper. I can honestly say I know all of them and the barriers they face,’ she says.
Sharing stories is a key part of this. ‘I encouraged our chief constable Dee Collins to share her story about her experience of breast cancer,’ Anna recalls. ‘It went national and encouraged others to share too. People had tended to come forward only when their impairment began to affect them at work in performance or attendance. But now, people are telling us even if they’re not sharing with the force yet. The main thing is they’re getting the peer support.’
Anna knows what it’s like not to be treated as an individual. ‘I’ve been deaf since I was 12. I was doing well at school but, once I was deaf, I was told wouldn’t be able to go to university and get qualifications. I have dreams just like anyone else and having a disability doesn’t change that. But suddenly I felt that I wasn’t being heard.’
At PurpleSpace, we believe the act of sharing is invaluable. Sharers feel heard; colleagues feel less alone with their own story and so more inclined to share too; and for the organisation it normalises difference and even leverages it. But there’s more to it than even all that: it can have very practical benefits as Anna illustrates using the example of one police volunteer who, despite having a degree, had failed 20 interviews for a paid job with West Yorkshire Police.
‘She has cerebral palsy which causes difficulties with mobility and with cognition leading to anxiety,’ says Anna. ‘We discussed the adjustments she needed in detail - we wanted to go beyond the standard adjustment of ‘extra time’ which hadn’t made any difference previously. I wrote up short pen pictures for her of the interview panel. I drew an organisational structure diagram so she could see where she fitted it. We got her the interview questions an hour beforehand and ensured that she’d visited the interview location prior to the interview itself. All these things ensured that she didn’t just go into the interview cold and therefore anxious. These little tweaks enabled her to get the job on merit, the 21st time. She has passed probation and is now absolutely thriving. This shows the power of reasonable adjustments.’
In short, sharing stories can lead to better adjustments. ’With the right support and adjustments, the world is your oyster,’ says Anna - but it all begins with telling your story. ‘We’ve had people assuming they’ll be medically redeployed but we’ve shown them it need not be like that. Adjustments are not one-size-fits-all. You meet one disabled person, you meet one person.’
However, Anna is aware that the barriers to sharing are particularly pertinent in the police. ‘PurpleSpace have been really useful in helping us unpick the barriers to sharing,’ she says. ‘The very word “disclosure” is a massive barrier. In the police, disclosure is linked to criminal convictions or financial information. We now talk about sharing rather than disclosure.’
There also remains in the police a distinction between the civilian staff like Anna who are subject to the same employment law as everyone else and the operational police who are governed by police regulations. These regulations can be a challenge to sharing. But change is in the offing. ‘There is a national working party on the police fitness test to look at how we can make it better for disabled people. Obviously some level of fitness is needed for the job but does everybody need to be “fully-deployable” in all situations and can the fitness levels we need be measured in a better way?’ A more flexible approach to what it means to be fit for police work could make it easier for disabled police officers to share their stories.
Anna, who is also secretary of the Disabled Police Association nationally, believes that police attitudes to disability have already come a long way since the case of Fiona Pilkington a decade ago (Google it if you can’t remember) and the bad old days when disabled people were known as ‘sick, lame and lazy’ in the station banter but there is still some distance to go. ‘Disability is where women were a few years ago,’ she says, giving the concrete example of network funding. ‘We have funded coordinators for some police employee network such as the black police network but not yet for disability so everything the Disabled Police Association does is voluntary.’
Anna’s use of stories really takes the value of sharing to a new level. Yes, sharing breaks down barriers and builds bridges but, if someone in your network or in your workplace really understands your story, it also opens doors to more personal, more practical adjustments.
Anna Button was on the Shaw Power list of 100 influential people with a disability (a list compiled by a panel chaired this year by PurpleSpace CEO Kate Nash and headed by TV personality Alex Brooker.)
West Yorkshire Police Disabled Association Fact Box
- Founded 2016
- Shortlisted for the second year running for Staff Network of the Year in the European Diversity Awards
- One of two police members of PurpleSpace
- Marked #PurpleLightUp this year by flying purple flags from all divisional headquarters
Disabled Police Association Fact Box
- Founded 2012
- Executive of 15 (both police officers and staff) from forces all across the UK
- All 43 police forces in England and Wales have a disabled network. (Watch this space. PurpleSpace will be reaching out to them over the coming year.)
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