Fighting for what we deserve – Disabled people and sport

Fighting for what we deserve – Disabled people and sport

Today (December 3rd) marks the annual celebration of the international day of Disabled people.

The Get Yourself Active team discusses what the day means to us and how much progress has been made toward equality in sports and physical activity.

International Day of Disabled People is a globally celebrated awareness day recognised and supported by the United Nations. It is a time to take a step back and celebrate the diversity of our global community. Today we look to cherish the role we all play, regardless of our abilities. It is a day for optimism. We look towards the future and plan a world without barriers.

This year’s theme is “Fighting for rights in the post-COVID era“. Since March 2020, every person on earth has been impacted by drastic political, social and economic change due to domestic and international responses to COVID-19. These changes have most often negatively impacted the lives of Disabled people, putting them at risk of poor outcomes, and isolated them from their communities.

Sadly, this continues to be the case in the sport and physical activity sectors.

Being able to get active in a way that suits us is a right that every Disabled person has. Our right to enjoy sport and physical exercise shouldn’t be an afterthought or treated as a “bonus” to the battles for equality we are fighting in other areas. If we change the world of sport and physical activity, we change lives for the better.

Slow progress

Before the pandemic, the activity gap (the difference in the number of people who describe themselves as physically active) between Disabled people and non-Disabled people had started to narrow. The sport sector was making small but steady progress by working in more inclusive ways.

The Active Lives survey found that before the onset of Covid, the number of Disabled people who said they were physically inactive had fallen to 34%, down from 41% the year before.

This corresponded with an 18% rise (from 40% to 58%) in those who said they had “the opportunity to be as physically active as they want to be”. Following Covid, however, that number has fallen back to 39%, with the need to self-isolate the most common reason given, alongside a fear of contracting the virus.

A young woman uses the cable machines at the gym

Hard work erased overnight

It will come as no surprise that the Covid-19 pandemic has had a massive impact on Disabled people’s activity levels.

Just as the pandemic has affected Disabled people disproportionately in almost every aspect of life, there was a huge drop in activity levels and widening inequalities, creating new barriers in sport and activity for Disabled people.

Although some report that sport and physical activity has become more accessible due to the shift online, allowing Disabled people to get active from their own homes, this view doesn’t paint the full picture.

Throughout our work, we have heard about more barriers to accessibility due to covid rules making it harder for Disabled people to get active.

For instance, online activity is simply not accessible to everyone. Many people find themselves on the wrong side of the ‘digital divide’ or that their accommodation is not conducive to working out at home. People are not getting enough support to book sessions online and missing out as a result.

Also, Get Yourself Active’s Active at Home Research showed that a lot of Disabled people were shielding for much of the pandemic – and this has meant that as things began to open up, many continued to be uncomfortable attending face to face activities. For instance, during lockdown, 69% of Disabled people preferred to get active inside.

Whilst being outdoors might be safer from a Covid perspective, outdoor spaces are not accessible to everyone. We see many barriers such as lack of accessible toilets in parks or gates and barriers people cannot pass through using a mobility scooter, for example.

Some people have lost support networks around getting active or find public transport feels unsafe. It’s not necessarily the activity that is inaccessible, but the ‘ecosystem’ around it. That has eroded for many people.

These issues are all backed up by research into Disabled people’s activity levels. Just last month, Sport England, the arms-length body of government responsible for growing and developing grassroots sport and getting more people active across England, released their latest Active Lives Adult Survey.

It spans the period from mid-May 2020 to mid-May 2021, including periods of national and tiered restrictions introduced to counter the coronavirus pandemic.

The results are stark and worrying. Put simply, Disabled people are not getting active, and the deficit between activity levels of Disabled and non-disabled people continues to widen.

Three older people prepare for exercise by stretching. They are dressed in running gear including sport leggings and trainers.

Where do we go from here

The problem of the activity gap is not Disabled peoples to own, and it’s the world around us that needs to change quickly.

Perhaps the answer lies in co-production. A way of working where service providers and Disabled people work together to reach a collective outcome. This redistribution of power could help attention focus not on what sports and activity society feels Disabled people should do, but on what we want to do.

Furthermore, our Active at Home research showed many ways that the sport and physical activity sector could react to the current crisis. Simple steps like resources being more accessible by adapting workouts and having multiple options that suit different levels and abilities or having social elements to motivate people to become or stay active could make a world of difference.

Scope reported that 91% of Disabled people want to be more active, so why don’t people listen to us? By focusing on how sport and access can be co-produced with Disabled people at the heart, we can open up a new world of activity for Disabled people – one we have all been waiting too long for.

Want to learn more? You can explore your rights as a Disabled person at the Right to Participate.