Of all the protected characteristics discussed so far in FIRE’s equality, diversity and inclusion series, disability support and awareness, although no less important, is less prominent in the Fire and Rescue Service (FRS), in part, perhaps, due to the stereotypical image of a physically fit and strong firefighter. But ‘disability’ does not refer only to the physical – the term encompasses any ‘physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on that person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities’, as described on equalityhumanrights.com.

Earlier this year, FIRE reported on the neurodiversity conference hosted by the LGA. The term encompasses all conditions that present a different thinking style, including ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia, and it is a subject that is fast spreading through fire services around the country. With adequate support and reasonable adjustments in place, someone with a disability and/or neurodiverse condition can add the same value to society as anyone else, and the results of my search for positive action in fire services across the country reflect this. What follows are four different stories and approaches to disability and neurodiversity support and awareness that are enriching the experiences of internal workforces and external communities.

West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service

West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service (WYFRS) already has years of diversity and inclusion experience behind it, and it continues to develop and update policy and procedure in line with the requirements of its workforce. Gill Cockburn is the Diversity and Inclusion Manager and her background lies in dyslexia support. Gill is physically disabled and uses a mobility scooter. She tells FIRE that she has always had to fight for reasonable adjustments in previous organisations, but joining WYFRS was quite different: “Adaptations were made, ramps were built in, kitchens were extended… It made me feel included from day one which is really important, especially in my role!”

When Gill joined WYFRS in 2018, she re-evaluated the existing disability support within the service and offered a dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia screening service, including a full diagnosis and report from a partner agency, if required, to all staff. These reports then allowed Gill and her team to put support mechanisms in place using the reasonable adjustments policy. It soon transpired that they were buying a lot of the same software for different staff members. Gill says: “In response to that we’ve bought site licenses for TextHelp read and write software, which means it’s now accessible to every member of staff, whether they’ve got a diagnosis or not. They might just have a different learning style or they might have dyslexia that they don’t want to disclose.”

There is a wealth of training throughout the service, including Train the Trainer for TextHelp, which has created a number of TextHelp champions throughout the service. There is also deaf awareness training and the development of e-learning packages.

Disability awareness and support within WYFRS has clearly pushed through the stereotypical barriers, as Organisational Development Manager Ian Stone tells FIRE: “Historically, fire and rescue services haven’t really considered disability, a sweeping generalisation I know, but clearly, to be a firefighter you need physical fitness, and that is the one dimension of disability that people thought about. Gill has helped us to look at disability in a much more holistic way.”

Rhiannon Wraith is the Positive Action Co-ordinator within Gill’s team and she has introduced mentors into the recruitment process: “When asking for firefighters to be mentors to new recruits, lots have come forward who have a dyslexia diagnosis and want to be linked with someone who has said they need reasonable adjustments, because they want to help them to get all the support available, and they want to share their own stories with them.”

Our discussion naturally gravitated to the subject of neurodiversity in the FRS. Gill says: “Firefighters are attracted to a practical role, and when they are asked to do the academic side of things, that’s when it comes to light that they might have neurodivergent characteristics. I think it’s quite prevalent that there’s a lot of neurodiverse staff that need support, and it’s a conversation at the moment across a lot of fire services, which is really positive.”

Avon Fire and Rescue Service

Avon Fire and Rescue Service (AFRS) is hitting the ground running after a slow start by hiring the perfect candidate to turn their culture and inclusion policies around. Richard Stokes is the Culture and Inclusion Manager and the manager of the Diversity, Inclusion, Cohesion and Equality (DICE) team for AFRS. He was promoted to these management roles in 2019, just as AFRS’s new culture change programme was launched following a series of unfavourable reports on how AFRS looks after its people.

Richard endured continuing racism throughout his previous career with the British Army and is now a champion for equality. He says: “I’ve been dealing with equality and diversity for 21 years now, born out of the extremes that I have been through… I came [to AFRS] at a low point in the organisation, but also at the beginning of a turning point in terms of culture review.”

In response to the previously mentioned reports, AFRS has set up improvement boards and action plans and designed a culture survey which highlighted issues within the organisation and areas where more people needed to have a voice. Richard says: “Part of my work is to analyse our workforce profile and look at how we are attracting people from under-represented groups from our external community… There is a small percentage of employees who claim to have a disability, but in a workforce our size, this doesn’t seem to be the true picture… Culture change is a constant evolution and while I am making these changes I will also have to deal with resistance… I want to build confidence so that people can come and talk to me. I can’t apply reasonable adjustments if people don’t feel confident enough to talk about it. I want to go that extra mile and help people on a personal, human level.”

The current rise in fire service personnel asking for support with neurodiverse conditions has provided both learning opportunities and insights in terms of applying reasonable adjustments. Richard says: “[Disability] is a massive subject. And how much of it is neurodiversity? How do we distinguish between somebody’s personal characteristics and their disability, in terms of how they perform? How many members of staff have recognised they experience difficulties but have just got on with it, like people with dyslexia often do?”

These questions have driven Richard to further understand the subject of disability and neurodiversity in an attempt to use knowledge and partnerships to raise awareness and offer support throughout his organisation. He is at the beginning of developing a number of initiatives, and he is confident in his approach. The following two initiatives have proved to be effective places to start:

  1. Avon Fire and Rescue Service shares a building with Avon and Somerset Constabulary – a much larger organisation that is ahead with its diversity and inclusion work. Constabulary personnel have shared their policies with Richard so he can develop policy within AFRS. Partnerships and collaboration are key.
  2. Richard has introduced himself to the Vassall Centre in Bristol. Built in 1945 as a base for American soldiers during the Second World War, this building is now home to a large number of disability charities and organisations, and claims to be one of the “earliest barrier-free workplaces in the UK.” People with a diverse range of disabilities and neurodiverse conditions work throughout the centre, and Richard is making connections there with a view to implementing good practice into the AFRS Integrated Risk Management Plan.

Derbyshire Fire and Rescue Service (DFRS)

Derbyshire Fire and Rescue Service (DFRS) is working hard to build relationships and promote engagement with those who have a disability in the community it serves. The most prominent work that is taking place is in support of people who are deaf and hard of hearing. Inclusion Officer, Lukasz Gazda, says: “Our journey with the deaf community started with the British Deaf Association (BDA), and specifically through local champion and Access and Inclusion Officer for the BDA, Robin Ash. He campaigns to improve wider services for the deaf community and promotes the British Sign Language Charter.”

Robin works together with DFRS, Nottinghamshire FRS and Leicestershire FRS, and in 2018, following a series of meetings, the three services jointly signed a commitment to the charter. Lukasz says: “It was a wonderful experience of community engagement and the beginning of a project that’s ongoing. Under the charter commitment we’ve created an action plan that supports the pledges.” This work involves delivering training internally and making valuable connections with the external deaf community.

Lukasz continues: “The training helps us to identify individuals who are interested in this area of work, maybe they are signers, for example. Some [stations] have requested training in basic sign language and they’ve now created videos that have been shown externally on our social media.” DFRS is divided into three districts, and Lukasz has worked with each district to select a member of staff to be fully trained in using sign language, which is currently ongoing.

I asked what difference having these skills makes in the deaf community and Lukasz replied: “A simple ‘hello’ can change a lot. It really does. But we know it’s not enough, so we’re working in partnership with a local charity and sign language provider called Sign Language Unlimited. There is procedure in place for any personnel who are engaging with a [deaf person]; if they require an interpreter, they would easily be able to access one.”

Continued engagement with the deaf community will build trust and confidence between service provider and user. Lukasz and his team continue to build these relationships by organising deaf awareness open days and inviting members of the deaf community to help make educational videos. He says: “We’re not short of volunteers who want to help, and that’s really good because we want to back up that engagement. Our training and awareness will continue, it can’t be a one-off. We will refresh our courses and we’ve now included deaf awareness training in our e-learning platforms… There’s always more that can be done!”

Helen Haddon is a senior HR partner responsible for wellbeing who also manages the occupational health unit for DFRS. Helen’s role includes supporting all staff who disclose a disability, whether they have it when they join or acquire it while employed. “We link in with the individual’s GP or specialist consultant for whatever the disability is. We work very closely with safety and risk management as well in terms of risk assessing roles and identifying what reasonable adjustments can be made and what additional equipment might be needed.”

London Fire Brigade

London Fire Brigade (LFB) Borough Commander for Sutton, Martin Corbett, has been in the LFB for 29 years and his journey from firefighter to commander is the reason the LFB now has one of the largest neurodiversity support networks in the fire sector.

Martin was not officially diagnosed with dyslexia until well into his Fire Service career, but he always knew he learned differently to most other people. In school he excelled in practical subjects but struggled with the academic side of learning. Dyslexia screening was not available at the time, so Martin played to his strengths and studied mechanical engineering before starting a career in the construction business. He easily progressed to management level, but the added stress made the job difficult. After witnessing a harrowing accident involving some of his friends and the subsequent engagement of the local firefighters, Martin made the decision to change his career and join the LFB. “I’ve never looked back. I’ve absolutely loved the job; it sends shivers down my spine every time I think about it because it’s an absolutely wonderful job!”

Martin’s practical skills enabled him to progress through the ranks to the role of station commander because he had taught himself how to learn effectively and how to adapt. But once again, he found it difficult to cope with the mounting pressure. The coping strategies he was using were not effective at dealing with the added level of responsibility and organisation.

Giving up was not an option for Martin. This was around 2005 and dyslexia screening was then widely available, and Martin’s subsequent test results confirmed that he has classic dyslexia. “That [diagnosis] sent me on a very personal journey. It was like an acceptance; I understood why I can’t read properly.”

The Brigade then supplied dyslexia counselling for Martin which suggested more helpful techniques and adaptations. “The biggest thing that came out about my profile was that the situation does get worse when I’m under pressure, and being a station commander, I was having to deal with four or five different issues at once.”

Martin’s determination to progress was encouraged, reasonable adjustments were put in place to help, and seven attempts over seven years later, he qualified as Borough Commander for Sutton. “I can pass the interviews, I can pass the exams, and I can pass written reports because the Brigade gave me extra time for any written assessment, but when it comes to the most critical part of our role, which is incident command, the assessment is very difficult to provide reasonable adjustments for. We are now starting to change our assessment process, which allows people to show their competence in [other ways], but it’s very difficult because if we get things wrong on a fire ground, it’s a matter of life or death.”

Martin’s diagnosis prompted his idea to create a more inclusive service. “I started to meet more people in the Brigade with dyslexia, and from the very small steps in the beginning we formally set up [a support group] five years ago. We started with about ten people who were dyslexic, and we now have over 200 members who are all neurodiverse… I organise six-monthly workshops for everyone who has a different thinking style, and we have a formal constitution. A lot of it is about supporting each other and it’s a chance to be heard and receive advice and suggestions.”

In addition to the support network, the LFB has a learning support team headed by an occupational psychologist. The team has been given an increased budget to deal with neurodiversity and make sure there are reasonable adjustments in place, and there is a continual training process for managers to understand more about learning differences. They are also developing reasonable adjustment passports which means that any manager can access a passport to understand what adjustments are in place for that individual.

Martin’s inspirational journey is the reason he wants all neurodiverse conditions to be supported and accepted throughout the FRS. He recognises first-hand the variety of talent that comes from different thinking styles. “Neurodiversity is now really high up on the agenda, because it’s about how people learn and how we can get the best out of people… that’s why I say, if you are dyslexic, let your organisation know, because they will look at your strengths, and rely on your strengths.”

Martin is completely open about and proud of his dyslexia journey, and he is keen to share his wealth of knowledge on the subject of neurodiversity with all services across the country.

If your service requires some of Martin’s expertise, please contact FIRE to be connected.