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How we're working for disabled people during the coronavirus pandemic

We must ensure the sport and physical activity sector emerges from the current crisis stronger and fairer than ever before.

17th November 2020

by Tim Hollingsworth
Chief executive, Sport England

There is a real danger that disabled people will be left behind as the sport and physical activity sector recovers from the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. This cannot be allowed to happen. 

Working with, and for, disabled people has been a key part of my professional life. 

As chief executive of the British Paralympic Association for seven years, I saw first-hand the issues so many people face and have to overcome just to have the same opportunity as others in the community. 

A young girl plays cricket in a wheelchair

When I joined Sport England two years ago, I was therefore determined that making sport and physical activity more inclusive and accessible for disabled people would be a priority.  

I was delighted to find many like-minded colleagues, already doing a brilliant job in understanding and breaking down those barriers. And we’ve worked hard over the past two years to help more people enjoy the benefits being active can bring. 

Our strategy was working. Our Active Lives reports were showing more disabled people were being more active more often – including those with multiple or more complex impairments.   

Crucially, the gap that existed between disabled people and non-disabled people was also beginning to close.  

And then the pandemic hit. 

Sadly, the impact of coronavirus has been widespread and stark. In the first few months of the outbreak, six in 10 of all deaths in England and Wales citing Covid-19 were disabled people. 

The picture is also disturbing when you look at the impact on physically activity levels.  

Our most recent Active Lives Adult Survey revealed the number of inactive disabled adults with three or more impairments or health conditions increased from 45% to 56% during the initial months of the pandemic.  

This was the highest figure amongst all demographic groups we surveyed, and its clear coronavirus has significantly exacerbated some of the challenges disabled people already faced in their daily lives.  

This has included a lowering of confidence levels, increases in anxiety, and a negative and disproportionate impact on individual finances.   

I had a welcome opportunity this morning to address the Activity Alliance’s “An Inclusive Response to CV19” Conference online. 

Last month, the Alliance released further research that illustrates how challenging the current situation is and their findings show that disabled people are more concerned than non-disabled people of the impact of coronavirus on their health, their wellbeing, and their life overall. From the stories told, that was very apparent also throughout the conference today.  

We all have a responsibility to not only reverse the impact of coronavirus but to ensure sport and physical activity returns and recovers in a way that is even more inclusive and more accessible than it was before.

What we’ve done so far  

Supporting disabled people has been a major priority in our response to the pandemic.  

Our Community Emergency Fund – set up in the first few weeks of the crisis to support sports clubs and physical activity providers suffering financially – has helped a significant number of clubs who deliver opportunities to disabled people.  

We also launched our £20 million Tackling Inequalities Fund to distribute funding to support people who we know have been most affected by coronavirus, including disabled people. 

Organisations such as Mencap, Disability Rights UK, Activity Alliance and Disability Sports Coach have directly supported us to deliver this fund and we’ve already invested in 386 projects that directly support disabled people to be active.    

We’ve also produced guidance on inclusion and accessibility that will help the providers and deliverers of sport and physical activity understand who can get active, how to engage specific audiences, and how to ensure facilities are, and remain, accessible to all when they are allowed to reopen.  

We’ve also invested in our campaigns to inspire the public to stay active in whatever way they can and to ensure they are motivated to return to activities when restrictions are lifted. This includes the now award-winning Join the MovementThis Girl Can and our partnership with 16 national health charities through We Are Undefeatable.  

The campaigns have embraced technology and developed short, easy to use workouts disabled people can take part in from the comfort of their home, as well as telling the stories of real people who’ve adapted their routines to include activity despite the challenges they’ve faced.  

Our vision 

We had made significant strides forward in recent years in terms of creating inclusive and accessible opportunities for disabled people in sport and physical activity and we will not allow the pandemic to undo these gains.   

That’s why we all have a responsibility to not only reverse the impact of coronavirus, but to ensure sport and physical activity returns and recovers in a way that is even more inclusive and more accessible than it was before.  

We know that many disabled people want to be more active. We also know that the impact of sport and physical activity on the mental wellbeing of disabled people is significant, in fact it has more of an impact on mental wellbeing than it does for non-disabled people.   

Sport and physical activity can lead the way in ensuring that we create a society that is more inclusive and accessible for disabled people.  

We must work together to engage directly with disabled people, use their lived experience and expertise to co-produce a more accessible and inclusive system.   

We know that for many disabled people, accessing services and feeling part of society is becoming harder. We cannot allow this to happen in sport and physical activity. We must become a beacon for change, for what is possible.   

What happens next  

In the short-term it’s important to remember that the new national restrictions are scheduled to end on 2 December and at this point we may well return to a more tiered system.  

When this happens, we all need to focus on ensuring that those that have been hit the hardest by coronavirus are not left behind when it comes to opportunities to play sport and be active.   

Looking further ahead, tackling inequalities will form a central part of our new 10-year strategy that will be published in early 2021 and, without giving too much away, I can promise you creating more inclusive and accessible opportunities for disabled people will run across all its key themes.    

We’re also working with the government to ensure there’s alignment with the National Strategy for Disabled People, where sport and physical activity has an important role to play in improving the quality of people’s lives.    

It’s the responsibility of everyone involved to do what we can to create more accessible and inclusive opportunities for disabled people.  

Together, we can ensure we emerge from the coronavirus crisis with a sector that is stronger and fairer than ever before. One that allows disabled people to feel the transformational, life changing benefit that playing sport and being active provides. That is my commitment today.

You can watch Tim's contribution to the Activity Alliance's "An Inclusive Response to CV19" Conference via their website

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