At Misgav, we provide sport sessions – netball, dance, gym, swimming and cycling to learning disabled women from minoritised communities in Hackney, London. For Disabled people, a start to exercising is complicated with multiple barriers. We support our women to get out of the house (30% have serious mobility issues) and with accessible transport. We also provide trainers that will understand their first language and an environment that will be culturally respectful and familiar.
This means we must provide a women-only space and be mindful of customs, holidays and dietary needs.
All our sessions are mixed ability. We work with women aged from 18 to 54+, with very different needs dictated by communication, complex health needs or sensory issues. Especially for users on the autism spectrum and others with mental health challenges, which make interaction with their peers more difficult, we create group settings that don’t overwhelm.
So how do we make sport not only accessible but something that our participants actually want to get out of the house for?
First and foremost, we make it fun, familiar and comfortable. A lot of time is spent talking to our participants and their carers about their needs and preferences, and when things do not work so well, we change them.
We give one-to-one support thanks to our incredible volunteers. For those who require a high level of support, we provide paid keyworkers to ensure continuity with staff who know them and help create familiar routines. Even though we work in group settings, we make the experience personal. This goes back to the one-to-one support, and individual fitness goals set up for each user and tracked regularly.
Recently we used Together Fund funding to provide swimming sessions. In these sessions, we focus on strengthening muscles and stamina by tracking everyone’s performance in diving, timed lengths swam and correct strokes movement.
Progress is measured by moving up points on a five point SEN plan scale (assessing for the level of support needed, progress in gained independence, and mastery of actual skills).
The overall goal of these targets is to help women to return to pre-Covid fitness level and better manage their weight. Of course, exercising only once a week will have a limited impact. Hence, we encourage users to try out our other sports and participate in our nutrition and healthy eating sessions. This holistic approach has helped users maintain their hard-worked for millstones.
We want to create outcomes on the same level as having a personal trainer while exercising together. And it is this being together which underpins the success of our sessions. Those who come to swimming and other sports activities cite feeling less bored and lonely as a result of joining.
Since the Covid lockdowns, we have sadly seen a deterioration of mental health among users, which affects their motivation, stamina during exercise and ability to engage with the group. We have introduced mental health action plans alongside our fitness monitoring tools, guided by a clinical psychologist to address that.
On average, after 3 months of positive interventions through the plans, we see users better adjusted and more engaged in sessions, with lower social/general anxiety levels.
Another benefit of our sports programme is social integration. With one-to-one support and a pool of 90 young local volunteers, our Disabled users meet and make connections. And often forge lasting friendships with many local residents. This helps Disabled people greatly outside sessions when they see a familiar face on the bus or in the shops. They feel a part of the community because of this familiarity. In turn, it gives women a boost to become active in the community by joining other activities we signpost them to.
Anyone who has tried to turn their lifestyle from totally inactive to taking on a regular fitness routine knows that as much as it is difficult to start, it is even harder to maintain those hard-earned goals.
During the pandemic, we saw how quickly those fitness levels dropped and how hard it was for users to get back to exercising again. Still dealing with the fallout of covid, we look to the coming winter months with some trepidation over the sustainability of our rented swimming facilities and halls for sessions. Our key benefit is providing continuity and helping maintain and slowly build on what has been achieved. This is why we are especially grateful for funds like the Together Fund and Get Yourself Active, who recognise the need for the continuity of and in disability sport in their advocacy.