Heavy lifting – what’s holding Britain’s gyms back

Heavy lifting – what’s holding Britain’s gyms back

Kamran Mallick joined Disability Rights UK as its Chief Executive in July 2017. He is the former Chief Executive of Action on Disability, the Hammersmith-based disability organisation, where he worked for 13 years. Kamran was included in the Shaw Trusts Powerlist 100 – Most influential disabled people in 2018 and was in the top 10 in 2020.

According to Sport England, Disabled people are twice as likely to be physically inactive (41%) than those without a disability (20%). No space is perhaps more closely aligned in your mind’s eye when you think of getting active than the gym. Across the UK thousands of people have poured back to their local providers as restrictions eased allowing them again to pump iron once again.

I enjoy being active and I’m lucky enough to have a fully inclusive gym fairly nearby. Feeling the muscle ache the day after going to the gym gives me a boost. I am not the only Disabled person who benefits from physical activity but we all know that so many are unable to access it – in fact, four in five (81 per cent) Disabled people would like to be more active.

When my gym was closed during lockdown I went out pushing in my wheelchair but it felt less like exercise and more like a dangerous game – avoiding the uneven paving stones, tree roots and potholes.

We know that Disabled people want to be more active, but they are put off by poor inaccessible facilities, the cost and lack of accessible transport. I went to look at a leisure centre in Hammersmith, accredited as inclusive, to find there was not one machine I could use. Trying to be positive the instructor pointed to the accessible toilets and wide corridors, while useful not a reason to go there.

Slow progress 

The average gym membership costing £40 a month and gyms with disabled access often costing even more. Couple this with the income gap between Disabled and non-disabled people it’s no surprise that so many Disabled people can’t afford to go to the gym. However, price is part of a complex web of barriers and challenges that prevent Disabled people from being active and using facilities like gyms.

The first barrier is obvious – a lack of accessible facilities. Of Britain’s almost 7,500 gyms only 67 are accredited by the Activity Alliance’s Inclusive Fitness Initiative. And gyms are only part of the story, yoga and pilates classes up a flight of stairs, access to swimming pools only at designated times and instructor-led activity not being inclusive are all barriers that can be overcome.

A Disabled man in a wheelchair is pictured in the gym

We have a right to be active and use the services and facilities that have been created, this can be done through inclusive design. This requires a whole system approach that includes the lived experience of Disabled people – a staff team that is trained and confident in adapting activity, an industry that actively employs Disabled people and supports their development, policy and processes that remove barriers and a culture that values diversity. From failing to prepare equipment ahead of a class, or not knowing how to support you to use a specific machine – negative attitudes and being treated like a burden can dishearten even the most confident person. The business case is strong – become truly inclusive and Disabled people their family and friends will come and make use of facilities.

Pushing the tempo of change

The industry must stop treating Disabled people as an afterthought requiring special or add on services. Disabled people of working age and their families have money to spend, the spend called the Purple pound is worth approximately £249 billion.

Although things are changing for the better progress has thus far been slow. There is no “one size fits all” solution to accessibility, but there are certain general national rules that are now being applied to leisure centres and the larger chains/gym providers.

I know how lucky I am to be able to attend a gym that suits my needs near to my home. I can take comfort in knowing that when I go to my gym at the Aspire National Training Centre, the process is as smooth as it can be and the instructor is as likely to be a Disabled person as not.  I understand how lucky I am that when I go to a class, I know that the equipment I need will be there and that the spin class (a favourite of mine) is designed to include me without me even needing to ask – just as well… it should be frankly.

Now, we want to hear from you. Share your experiences of the gym with the community at the Right to Participate.