Thursday 13 April 2017
Get Yourself Active volunteer, Iyiola Olafimihan, shares his thoughts on the importance of recognising the staggering inequalities faced by disabled people today when developing wellbeing and physical activity opportunities, and how this connects to the latest Equality and Human Rights Commission report
2012 Paralympics Games was a sort of nadir for disabled sports women and men in this country. Suddenly the public and mainstream was introduced to spectacular performances by “super humans” who were basically doing their best to represent their countries just like their non-disabled peers did a few weeks prior to their event. While the feel-good feeling lasted, disabled people generally had a respite from the constant media portrayal of them as weak and economically draining group that only wants to scrounge the benefit system to death!
However, since the utopia year of 2012 disabled people’s quality of life has declined considerably. Commenting on the recent report published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (the Commission) David Isaac, the Commission chair said,
“Progress towards real equality for disabled people over the past twenty years is insufficient and littered with missed opportunities and failures.”
The chair further said,
“Whilst at face value we have traveled far, in reality disabled people are being left behind in society, their life chances remain very poor, and public attitudes have changed very little.”
The Commission’s report covers a few key areas where disabled people are experiencing significant discrimination. These are: a lack of equal opportunities in education and employment; barriers to access to transport, health services and housing; the persistent and widening disability pay gap; deteriorating access to justice; and welfare reforms significantly affecting the already low living standards of disabled people.
The focus of this short article is on disabled people’s disadvantage in accessing physical activities and sport. Research commissioned by Sport Scotland found that in Scotland disabled people are less active, have poorer experiences of physical education in school, and are less likely to participate in sport as adults. Disabled people are also less likely to use leisure facilities. However, when disabled people do take part in sport and exercise, they are almost as likely as others to take part frequently (on 15 or more days per month). Barriers to disabled people’s participation in sports can include negative attitudes and stereotypes, physical inaccessibility and exclusion, pathways into sport, under-representation and wider issues of socioeconomic disadvantage (Sport Scotland, 2016).
The Get Yourself Active project being delivered by Disability Rights UK and partners was specifically set up to address these issues which are not exclusive to Scotland alone. A major outcome of the low participation in physical activity and sport of disabled people, as seen in Scotland and other areas of the UK, is the widening gap of health inequality between disabled people and non-disabled people. England, Wales and Scotland have action plans in place to tackle the obesity crisis, but these do not address the specific needs of disabled people, for whom weight and obesity are a particular problem but who may face barriers to forms of physical activity. Empowering and encouraging equal participation and inclusion of disabled people will help ease the problem of obesity and reduce the gap in health inequality between disabled people and their non-disabled peers.
Last year I had an interesting conversation with a friend who is disabled but active in her local gym about the benefits of regularly exercising and being active. She told me that because of her new found love for exercise and swimming she has become stronger and now has better control over her impairments. She is proud to be able to shop at her local Sainsbury’s and carry her groceries home herself. The point of her testimony is not the elimination of her impairments or reduction in her benefits but an acknowledgment of the confidence and sense of independence attending the gym regularly has given her.
However, enjoying and using physical activity, leisure and sport provisions depends largely on a transport system that is reliable, accessible and supportive. Poor access to transport, leisure and other services can affect the community and social life of disabled people, creating a barrier to independence and their enjoyment of day-to-day activities. Article 30 of the UN Convention on the right of persons with disability reinforces the link between accessing physical activities and sport and independent living. Partner organisations of the Get Yourself Active project are already witnessing the impact the delivery of the project is having on the people they work with and their ability to exercise some right to choose and control their lives.
Despite progress being made by the project and partners there is a realisation that the journey has just begun. Eliminating prejudices and stereotyping that stills exist in society will take a concerted effort between the public sector, County Sport Partnerships, the third sector and the disability organisations to achieve tangible and measurable results for disabled people. When public sector physical activity and sport providers start understanding their public sector equality duty, including their reasonable adjustment obligations under the Equality Act 2010, there will be a change in culture and processes that will hopefully see more disabled people being included in physical activities and sports. Local Authorities and other agencies must also realise that wellbeing and active participation in physical activity and sport is a tangible outcome which disabled people can and should include in their care and support plans and Local Authorities should increase the personal budgets of their disabled clients to accommodate these activities. In the long run society, and especially the NHS, will benefit from a healthy and active disabled population and ultimately see the high cost of health care becoming more manageable.
I have been volunteering one day a week on this project since January 2017 and I can attest to the energy and sincerity of the project’s staff team to advocate for a more inclusive physical activity and sport sector. This article will not be complete if credit is not given to Sport England and the English Federation of Disability Sport who are doing a lot to encourage the participation of disabled people in physical activity and sport. Disabled people don’t want to be super humans, we just want to be normal and be treated as citizens with rights to access every facet of human endeavour.