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First virtual RYA Sailability Conference proves a huge success

More than 200 delegates came together at the weekend for a chance to regroup, restart and rebuild at the first ever virtual Sailability national conference [Saturday, 13 February 2021].

Keynote speaker and global ambassador for disability sport, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, inspired all those in attendance by reflecting on her life in sport and politics and how Disabled people are more vocal and stronger together.

Highlighting some of the very real challenges and barriers Disabled people still face, her keynote speech also explored how Covid-19 has added to the complexity and how physical activity is going to be an important part of our national recovery.

The Baroness spoke passionately about the need to think about how Disabled people can be active and have a different conversation about the importance of physical activity in people’s lives. “It’s time to think about Disabled people being more demanding about their right to be physically active,” she reflected.

An online discussion panel with the Ellen MacArthur Trust, Disability Rights UK, Alzheimer’s Society, Freewheelin Dance and Kisimul then further explored the impact of the pandemic on people’s lives. Panellists highlighted the importance of practical solutions and involving Disabled people in decision making to make sure no-one gets left behind when activities restart following the easing of lockdown restrictions.

Helen Mason of Freewheelin Dance, commented “Disabled people face lots of barriers and Covid-19 is one of these. People may be scared and worried about exercising in groups. Many people have not left the home during the various lockdowns, so we’ve seen lots of social isolation. For many getting afloat provides a much-needed safe environment for us to get outside and be together again.”

Joff McGill, RYA Sailability Manager, added: “Looking at the barriers and highlighting the importance of having conversations with Disabled people to find out ways to reduce the barriers is an important first step on our journey of regrouping, restarting and rebuilding. Our first ever virtual Sailability national conference provided an opportunity to do just that and emphasised that the best approach is just to ask what would work for you, what wouldn’t work and to check in with people’s anxieties, and give people time.

“We should remember that the social side is as important as the boating activity. Sharing practical solutions across the Sailability network and showing how you are mitigating the risks caused by Covid-19 is of paramount importance. Some people will be desperate to come back, some will be more cautious, so we must treat everyone as individuals.”

A lively discussion panel with sailors explored what it is that people get from sailing with one of the panellists confirming: “Sailing means to me, everything. Friends, social life, interests of my own. The sensory experience, the physicality of it, my posture and co-ordination has improved – sailing has helped me in so many ways.” Another of the panel members added: “For me it’s, freedom. I can push my boundaries. When I am in a boat, people don’t recognise my disability, they see me, just me. I am a different person when I sail, a happier person.”

When considering aspirations for 2021, panellists and delegates alike all agreed that they are looking forward to being back on the water – doing as much sailing as we can and reconnecting with people again. While Covid-19 has undoubtedly had a significant impact on Disabled people, there are widening inequalities and the pandemic has created new ones. Activity Alliance research has shown that Disabled people have not had the opportunity to be as active as they want, often making physical and mental health harder to manage.

Joff concluded: “Disabled people do have fears and anxieties about returning to activity. It is really important for sailing clubs and centres to talk to Disabled people about what is possible and let the sailors and volunteers involved make their own choices about getting involved again as and when they are ready.

“Whilst we haven’t be able to meet in person this year, it was great to still come together as a community, motivate each other for the year ahead and learn together. As a follow-up to our hugely successful conference, we are now running a programme of Development Sessions which are being streamed live and available on demand. People can take part through the RYA website, Facebook or YouTube channels. For more information please visit the event website at 2021 RYA Sailability National Conference (”

To meet the RYA Sailability team, just sign-up for free to the RYA Dinghy Show presented by Suzuki as it goes virtual for the first time over the weekend of 27 and 28 February 2021.

To find out more about sailing opportunities for Disabled people, or those that need specific support to get on-the-water visit