The emergency services offer a huge variety of employment opportunities to a wide variety of people, including, you may be surprised to learn, disabled people.
Traditionalists, or people otherwise unenlightened of the capabilities of disabled people will immediately shrink back in horror from the idea of disabled people being employed by any of the emergency services (Police Force, Fire Service or Ambulance Service) until they stop to take a breath and think about the wide scope of roles available.
Suddenly, it makes perfect sense to look at things differently and this is essentially what happened 10 years ago when, in order to comply with a European Union directive on employment rights, the British Government passed the Disability Discrimination Act (2004) into law, updating the previous version introduced in 1995. The key difference, or shall we say development, was that the 2004 version had been amended to include the emergency services, who had previously been exempted.
Overnight, blanket bans that prevented disabled people serving in uniform on what might be collectively called the ‘frontline’ were made illegal, opening up opportunities for disabled people to apply for jobs and for many injured during their careers, protection from being forced out of their jobs.
“It’s political correctness gone mad” raved the less informed who still couldn’t picture anything more basic in their minds eye than a Bobby chasing a man with a bag of swag down the lane, brandishing his truncheon or of a hulking firefighter up a ladder saving the church bell tower from being engulfed by fire. The reality is, of course, that the sharp bit of the emergency services is a little like the tip of an iceberg in as much as much of the stuff they do is silently submerged below the waterline. (I suspect that there would somewhere be a Mr & Mrs Suburbia who would refuse to be attended by any member of the emergency services who happened to be disabled – but that’s their problem.)
Law is a strange beast and not always easy to pin down. First things first, what does the term ‘disabled’ mean to the emergency services and how relative is it to able-bodied people looking to do the same jobs? Well, the Disability Rights Commission published a document called “Guidance for FBU Members on the Disability Discrimination Act” in partnership with the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) in order to provide information and guidance to the Union’s representatives in the Fire Service “who will be advising their members on their rights under the Disability Discrimination Act”.
Mercifully, the document is quite a simple run-down of what the Act means and pretty close to the front, lists various impairments that are classified as disabilities including the obvious physical disabilities: “people who are wheelchair users” and “people who have arthritis” but also some of the more ‘difficult to spot’ disabilities such as “people with epilepsy” and “people who have insulin dependent disabilities”. Of course, before the updated DDA in 2004, none of the above would have been accepted to serve in frontline roles.
Helpfully, the guidance also extends to pointing out things that aren’t defined as disabilities, such as: “addiction to or dependency on alcohol, nicotine, or any other substance (unless the substance has been medically prescribed)”. That seems fair enough, as does “tendency to set fires” (no, really, it’s all in there, just in case you were wondering).
Of course, the FBU guidance is for members of the union, so those already serving, but its points are also relevant to disabled people aiming to apply to work in the Fire Service and indeed the recruitment process itself is covered under the regulation. This means that disabilities need to considered and reasonable adjustments provided, such as extra time in written tests or perhaps even IT equipment to give people with conditions such as dyslexia the chance to give of their best.
Amidst all this celebratory stuff about diversity, fairness and equality – all of which I’m in favour of, of course, there are a couple of serious points to make. Some of the roles that the emergency services take on are highly physical and truly dangerous. It’s a fact that not everyone is capable of doing them. That’s why (and not ‘despite’ the DDA 2004) there is still the need for a nationally-agreed fitness test that frontline police officers are expected to pass, for example. The flipside is that there will, of course, be frontline officers that would probably struggle with the very different pressures involved in the intense environment of an emergency call handling centre. The situation is broadly reflected in the other services too.
Health and safety issues still need to be taken seriously but they cannot be used to discriminate against a disabled person. The definition is subtle enough to require outlining and is outlined, again in the FBU guidance. Basically, a person looking to become a firefighter with type 1 diabetes might be initially seen as unfit to enter a burning building because of the risk of hypoglycemic attack. Of course, this is an assumption made on very little knowledge and evidence. What the DDA 2004 suggests is that the employer should undertake a full risk assessment (which is fully consultative and inclusive) and takes into account the person’s particular medical condition and which looks properly at making any reasonable adjustments to mitigate any identified risks. (This same guidance would also help a firefighter who is diagnosed with a disability after having joined the Fire Service).
There are, in fact two broad benefits to this way of looking at disabled employees; firstly blanket bans would undoubtedly preclude perfectly good candidates from roles that they are capable of doing and secondly and arguably more importantly, it would be nothing less than stupid to exile an employee post diagnosis and let them leave with all of that valuable training, experience and knowledge about their role that they are now unable to share with colleagues. (One further issue with reverting to the old methods would be that the FBU has identified that around 10% of all Fire Service employees (frontline or otherwise) have rights under the DDA 2004 – and would, therefore, be very difficult to replace. Police Forces report the number of disabled staff they employ on an annual basis but they don’t publish the figures.)
Just as in any other place of work, there is now a full expectation on employers to provide reasonable adjustments. This is part of a movement towards looking at each case on an individual basis from the perspective of what the employee can do, not what they can’t and was something of a new culture that was required of the emergency services to develop over the past 10 years since the DDA 2004. Adjustments can be made to premises, working hours, equipment and training.
Although the emergency services are still, collectively, a large employer, the number of vacancies has dipped of recent years not least because of funding cuts and mergers between police forces and the like. Fortunately, in this more competitive environment, disabled peoples’ rights are being properly protected. The emergency services remain ‘Two Ticks’ accredited (by Jobcentre Plus) and also work with organisations like Access To Work.
It’s also important not to overlook other wider benefits to the changes within the emergency services since 2004. The Police, still enforce the law by consent; meaning that the public support them in keeping law and order intact. By employing disabled people more readily, they learn more about them and understand their needs further. This ultimately, leads to better policing, especially where disability issues like hate crime are raised.
Some of the guidance seems strange and in places a little silly but that’s what happens when government tries to do the right thing and introduces new ideas. It doesn’t always get things done in an especially stylish or concise manner but so long as it happens – which it has, it doesn’t really matter.
So the next time Mr & Mrs Suburbia need to call on the trusty Fire Brigade to rescue Mr Tibbs (which, I hope you’ve guessed is their cat) from a tree, it may well be a disabled person that climbs up the ladder. Why would they need to know any different?
Disabled Police Association, www.disabledpolice.info
Equality And Human Rights Commission, www.equalityhumanrights.com
Police Service Recruitment, www.policecouldyou.co.uk
Fire Service, www.fireservice.co.uk
For Ambulance Service, www.nhscareers.nhs.uk
Shaw Trust, www.shaw-trust.org.uk
Access To Work, www.gov.uk/access-to-work/overview