Stuck in motion – How Wheels for Wellbeing learned lessons in lockdown

Stuck in motion – How Wheels for Wellbeing learned lessons in lockdown

With restrictions lifting this week we are uncovering how the pandemic has changed how Disabled people are getting active. This piece is the second of three stories and discusses how Wheels for Wellbeing works to enhance disabled people’s lives by ensuring that anyone can access the physical, emotional, practical and social benefits of cycling. We look at how the pandemic changed their work, and what comes next for the award-winning charity.

Based in South London, Wheels for Wellbeing have run inclusive cycling sessions for disabled people and their families, carers or friends since their formation in 2007.

Their qualified instructors, supported by enthusiastic volunteers, support participants try our cycles or get comfortable on the one that suits them, whilst offering ongoing support to allow them to continue to stay active.

Wheel for Wellbeing has always been informed by the life-changing personal experience of Disabled trustees, staff and volunteers upon which the pandemic, of course, has had a massive impact. Face-to-face community-based support services for people most at risk were among the first to shut down to limit the risk of virus transmission between beneficiaries, volunteers and staff members.

So what changes did they make to continue to support their community and make sure that anyone given the right equipment, support and environment can enjoy cycling – even as the pandemic closed down avenues for participation?

When the wheel stops turning

It goes without saying that before the pandemic Wheels for Wellbeing were helping support Disabled children and adults who faced barriers to taking part in any physical activity. These barriers were a key reason for the formation of Wheels for Wellbeing, and so the pandemic left them in a very difficult situation.

The biggest question looming over them regarded their face-to-face cycling sessions, which, pre-pandemic, would have typically welcomed more than 60 people per session and reach over 1,000 Disabled people each year. Suddenly not only had their participants suddenly lost the (often only) chance to keep their bodies moving and to experience the fun of the wind in their hair but had also been deprived of the social support network that their amazing community of cyclists represented.

It was clear that the desire of their participants was still there, but the pandemic had left them with a complex array of challenges. They received anecdotal reports of extensive loss of muscle strength, increased stiffness and pain from months of immobility and isolation which seemed to be commonplace from their participants and/or their supporters (parents/paid carers etc), in addition to some reports of anxiety, agoraphobia and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

A Wheels for Wellbeing instructor and participant cycle together on an accessible tandem bicycle.

Overcoming adversity during a challenging year

Quickly, the team at Wheels for Wellbeing improvised by putting together a cycle loan scheme that gave some of their Disabled participants access by offering them the chance to “rehome” some of their bicycles. This meant that they could remain physically active, cycling from their front doors and around their local area during the lockdown.

The existence of traffic-free residential streets and temporary cycling and walking infrastructure along main roads made this scheme possible but this was a temporary fix especially as many councils began to undo their work in this area.

Introducing a weekly Zoom Social Chat kept participants and their supporters/carers engaged and connected until sessions could restart in earnest as the focus remained on in-person sessions. When the UK Government Covid-19 guidelines allowed them to start planning their adaptive sessions last summer, they were overjoyed but life is sadly never that simple. Quickly diving into the complexities brought forth by pandemic restrictions – carrying out COVID-19 risk assessments, devising a brand-new booking system, buying PPE, and inviting people back to sessions was a real challenge.

Their laser focus on restarting their in-person sessions led them to reach out to the Get Yourself Active team, to help them navigate the processes of accessing financial support via the Tackling Inequalities Fund set up by Sport England. Extra funding would allow them to do more, supporting their community at a challenging time.

This support was central in helping launch their “Back on Track Project”. It allowed the smooth running of 18 of their newly launched inclusive cycling sessions which take place every Friday at Herne Hill Velodrome (between 1st November 2020 and 31st March 2021).  Although the numbers of participants and length of sessions per cyclist had to be limited participants have managed to cycle with Wheels for Wellbeing over 800 times over the past year a tremendous success!

A group of Wheels for Wellbeing participants pose together on a bridge with a view of the river Thames in London

Moving forward

With summer in full swing and now with lockdown ending completely, the team is confident that the lessons they have learned over the pandemic, and the understanding they have will continue to attract all comers. Quickly pivoting and ensuring that they always had the needs of their community in mind has allowed them to drive forward access to physical activity for all.

So, what’s next for Wheel for Wellbeing? We caught up with Liz Bull-Domican, Fundraising Officer at Wheels for Wellbeing to see how they felt about restrictions easing, and what is next for them?

“Whilst we look forward to restrictions easing and being able to engage more Disabled people in inclusive cycling, we are also aware that the pandemic is far from over.

Due to complex health conditions and vulnerabilities, most of our beneficiaries will have to keep taking extra precautions to stay safe. To help them feel at ease at our cycling sessions, the Wheels for Wellbeing team will continue doing everything we can to create a friendly, COVID-secure environment as possible!”

Enjoyed the blog and want to learn more about Wheels for Wellbeing? Visit their website here.