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Disabled Access Day: Why Britain’s Gyms Need To Up Their Game

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We all know regular exercise can help keep our mind and body healthy, but the latest statistics from Sport England show that just 17.2% of adults with long-term limiting illness, disability or infirmity participate in weekly sport.

In comparison, 35.8% of the general population participate in weekly sport or complete “moderate intensity exercise” at least once per week – that’s more than double the amount. 

It’s not that people with disabilities don’t want to up their fitness. A poll of more than 2,000 people by Parallel London – “the world’s first fully inclusive mass-participation run” – found that 83% of people with disabilities would like to take part in more physical activity.

What’s more, 66% of the survey participants with disabilities said they would be more active if “barriers were removed”.

To mark Disabled Access Day, we take a look at what some of the barriers are and what’s being done to remove them.

PhotoAbility via Getty Images

Simon Stevens, a keen swimmer who has cerebral palsy, has had problems accessing sports and leisure facilities in the past.

“What has discouraged me has been poor changing facilities, especially if you need privacy or have an personal assistant that is not the same gender as yourself,” he tells The Huffington Post UK.

“I was a member of a ‘posh’ gym where I had to change in a massage room and walk in my swim kit through the reception area to the pool.”

Stevens says there’s also a lack of personal trainers with the expertise to adapt exercises so they are suitable for someone with his condition.

Cerebral palsy is particularly individual and needs quality partnership to find what works,” he says.

Simon Stevens
Simon Stevens

Ian Martin, from Disabled Access Day, says it’s important all people feel welcome at their local gym so they can feel “part of their own community”.

“If the places that you want to go and sometimes need to go aren’t accessible then you can feel ‘left out’. The more we can do to encourage accessibility the better, as it impacts not only on disabled people but also on their friends, families and carers,” he says.

“It’s a myth to think that disabled people don’t want to be active or have an interest in being fit. There are simple adjustments that gyms can take to improve their accessibility.”

The English Federation Of Disability Sport (EFDS) helps gyms to make these adjustments through their Inclusive Fitness Initiative (IFI) accreditation scheme.

Under the scheme gyms and fitness products are tested by people with disabilities, then rated for suitability.

For gyms to become IFI accredited, the EFDS looks for features including removable seats so that wheelchair users can access equipment and a good use of colour contrast and large clear print to aid visually-impaired users.

They also recommend gyms purchase equipment with adjustment mechanisms that don’t require lots of manual dexterity to use, so they’re accessible for people with conditions such as arthritis.

Low starting speeds on machines and a wide range of weights to enable those new to exercise to build up their fitness levels will also help a gym achieve accreditation.

Dawn Hughes, a spokesperson from the EFDS, says unfortunately not every gym in the country has these products available.

“Given the financial austerity most community facilities are facing, budgets for access enhancements or staff training are very limited,” she says.

Centres are concerned they won’t see a return on investment for developments they make, if disabled people and those with health conditions subsequently don’t use their facilities.

Successful centres are normally those who have acted based on local insight and close consultation with their community about what developments and services are truly needed.”

Equally, Hughes says financial worries can prevent people in the disability community from seeking fitness opportunities in the first place.

“Benefit reductions and higher rates of unemployment for disabled people can impact their ability to pay for leisure activities which are often seen as ‘luxury’ items,” she says.

“Whilst it’s not widely talked about, some disabled people are also concerned that improving their health and wellbeing through exercise will adversely affect their receipt of financial support in other areas of their life.”

The good news is accessibility is improving slowly but surely. Since the EFDS launched the accreditation scheme 10 years ago, 400 gyms across the UK have been awarded the IFI mark.

Drew Walker, who was born with one arm, has found it challenging to access facilities in the past, but not impossible.

“On one occasion I called up Lea Valley velodrome to see if I could book to go on the track, when I let them know I had one arm, they told me they don’t cater for disabled people. However I’m more than capable of riding bikes and when I went to the Manchester velodrome there were no questions asked,” he says.

A spokesperson for Lea Valley VeloPark was unable to comment on Walker’s specific case at the time of publishing, but did tell HuffPost UK about its ‘All Ability’ cycling programme, a partnership with Bikeworks – a social enterprise organisation that provides people with disabilities access to cycling.

“We are able to modify bikes to attach prosthetic limbs to the handlebars if riders wish, or riders with missing limbs can also choose to be given coaching advice to help control and steer the bike with one arm,” they said.

“We are looking into the situation [involving Walker] and would like to apologise if the gentleman was advised incorrectly.”

Despite encountering challenges such as this, Walker has run in the London Marathon, cycled the 100-mile Prudential RideLondon route and completed the Spartan Trifecta. 

He’s now a qualified fitness instructor after completing the InstructAbility fitness course.  

Created by spinal chord injury charity Aspire and funded by Sport England, InstructAbility offers free gym instructor training and an industry work placement to people with disabilities.

Walker says the training certainly wan’t easy.

“I worked hard to get the position I’m in. I wasn’t just handed it on a plate because I had one arm,” he says.

“I did 12 weeks volunteering at Laura Trott leisure centre whilst working full-time at M&S, seven days a week.” 

The 24-year-old believes social stigma around disability needs to be challenged in order to improve fitness accessibility and encourage diversity among instructors. 

“I think people’s attitude towards disabled people need to change, they see them and almost feel sorry for them,” he says.

Thankfully, initiatives like Disabled Access Day are helping to reshape public perception around disability.

The day provides an opportunity for local businesses to tell the public about improvements they’ve made regarding accessibility. On top of that, it gives people with disabilities the chance to say what they want to see more of. 

Crucially, the day opens up communication in communities where it is most needed. Let’s hope one day accessibility is just a fact of life. 

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