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Swing and a miss – the reality of Disabled access to sport

With a summer of Sport in full swing, the Get Yourself Active team explores why many Disabled people struggle to access sport and physical activity. This piece looks at the current state of play, what barriers exist and how we may overcome them.

There’ll be more sport broadcast this summer than perhaps ever before. From the “Euros fever” to Wimbledon and now more recently the Olympics and Paralympics there’s no shortage of sporting inspiration.

We all know the feeling of watching athletes perform at the highest level and feeling inspired to go out and try our best too. Then why despite more Disabled sports being shown than ever before, with broadcasters like Channel 4 setting a new benchmark for the broadcast of Disabled sports, are so few Disabled people getting active? Just last week Disability charity Scope reported that 40% of Disabled people say they never do sport or physical activity. Why are so many Disabled people missing out on all the benefits that exercise and physical activity can bring?

Slowed down by the pandemic

It is commonly acknowledged that Disabled people face more challenges and barriers when they access sport and physical and activity compared to non-Disabled people. The numbers, however, show just how dramatic a difference it is between Disabled and non-Disabled people. Sport England research shows that Disabled people are twice as likely to be physically inactive (41%), compared with those without a disability (20%).

Almost half (48 %) of Disabled people report having become less active since the pandemic began with many facing barriers to exercise due to shielding or fears about the risk of catching Coronavirus. So, despite there being more visibility on sport and activity the bumper summer calendar this year – for many Disabled people the most we’ll be able to do it watch from our homes. Those in sport often talk about legacy, and inspiring generations, why then are so many Disabled people unable to get active in the same way as non-Disabled people?

The presenters for Channel Fours Paralympics broadcast stand in front of a blue and red graphic. This includes: de Adepitan,Sophie Morgan, JJ Chalmers, Ed Jackson, Lee McKenzie, Vick Hope , Clare Balding, Arthur Williams, Steph McGovern,

Breaking down barriers

More than a third (35%) of the Disabled people Scope surveyed said they felt excluded from sport. Pointing to barriers such as negative attitudes, inaccessible sporting venues, and a lack of trained staff to support Disabled people preventing them from taking part. Disabled people also felt excluded due to their local sports venue being inaccessible either because of a lack of local facilities in the first instance or because access for Disabled people wasn’t considered in the design of facilities that were there. One can only imagine the disappointment of travelling to a facility only to discover the lack of an adequate ramp or changing facilities – it shouldn’t have to be this way.

Another, sometimes more hidden barrier, is cost. Take wheelchair racing, for instance, the common equivalent of perhaps the most accessible sport of all – running. Running as someone who is non-Disabled is relatively simple and cost-free, perhaps you might need the latest trainers, but in reality, you could do it for free. Well, if you wanted to take part in wheelchair racing you’ll need access to a running track or similar facility unless you want to risk the road and pavement of your local area, you’ll need gloves and perhaps a helmet, and at some stage a chair of your own the cost of which can run up into the thousands.

Cost and logistics are just one of the many barriers that all contribute to an overall belief amongst many Disabled people that sport is simply not for them, and that a world in which we can all take part and get active simply doesn’t exist.

A girl smiles into the camera whilst sat in a wheelchair in a sports hall

Working together for change

So, for many, no matter how many athletes inspire them to get active or participate, they simply can’t access what they want. The problem is not theirs to own, it’s the world around us – and things need to change.

Representation and the presentation of Disabled sport need to be a starting point. To move forward, we need to accept that Elite level sport is not the only site of participation for Disabled people. When society talks about grassroots non-Disabled football, no politician, footballer or talking head says “well at least the Premier League has great pitches” and the attitude needs to be the case for Disabled sports and activity.

Perhaps the answer lies in co-production, a way of working where service providers and Disabled people themselves, work together to reach a collective outcome. This different outlook could help to attention focus not on what sports and activity society feels Disabled people should do, but on what we want to do. Scope reported that 91% of Disabled people want to be more active so why don’t people listen to us? By focusing on how sports 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.