The Activity Alliance has been supporting sport and leisure facilities to be more welcoming and accessible to people with disabilities for more than 10 years through its Inclusive Fitness Initiative ‘IFI Mark’ Accreditation.
One of the IFI Mark facilities – [EN]GAGE at the Edinburgh Napier University – undertook the accreditation last year. As part of Sport England’s quality assurance and continuing development programme, Quest, [EN]GAGE achieved ‘Excellent’ in the Engaging with Disabled People and People with long term Health Conditions module.
[EN]GAGE has a membership of 1,000, made up mostly of students, but is also open to staff and the local community. Manager Kevin Wright has no idea what percentage of those members have a disability.
“When people join a club they are immediately given a form that allows them to point out their differences, but a key thing for me is not highlighting conditions or disabilities,” he says.
This has been made possible by ukactive’s Health Commitment Statement, which enables operators to be more inclusive by allowing users to opt into exercise, rather than ticking boxes to highlight conditions that would see them sent back to their doctor for ‘permission’ to exercise.
“Both my parents have long term conditions and I’ve watched them deal with day-to-day access issues and trying to stay fit,” he tells. “Over the past 20 years I’ve also worked with a range of people with additional support needs, such as vision and hearing impairments, and I just never understood why this should be a barrier to exercise.
“So when I became manager at [EN]GAGE my aim was to make the gym accessible in the broadest sense of the word, including illness, disability and gender. It didn’t seem that difficult. Rather than making assumptions, I talked to our members and asked how we could help them. I also thought about people I’d worked with in the past and what would make it easier for them.”
Learning from Hope
In his previous role as strength and conditioning coach for Stirling Amateur Swim Club, Wright met Hope Garden. Garden now works at [EN]GAGE, setting up equipment and working on reception, as well as undertaking gym instruction. “Hope had chronic pain in her leg,” Wright says. “It caused a great deal of problems and sleepless nights, and I was inspired by how she approached each challenge with a growth mindset; adapting and finding ways to progress regardless. Yet getting Hope in and out of the gym, which should have been a very simple thing, became a challenge.”
Making the gym accessible became key to [EN]GAGE’s redevelopment and by the time the tender went out in 2016, Wright had a clear idea of what he wanted from the space. “Hope was a key influence in shaping the new facilities at [EN]GAGE. I learned more through Hope and other disabled athletes than anywhere else. Getting out and speaking to people is where you do the real learning. This, coupled with the input and knowledge from Quest, helped make the new facilities a reality. It didn’t add any additional cost and wasn’t particularly onerous, but it’s an ongoing project I feel very strongly about.”
Wright believes the support he received from the Activity Alliance, IFI and Quest – alongside his equipment provider, Matrix – was also pivotal to the success of the redevelopment. “The tenders continually mentioned DDA compliance,” he adds, “but in my experience that doesn’t necessarily make an area accessible, so it was eye opening going through the IFI element of Quest, looking at every aspect of the customer journey, right down to how they travel to us, and this is something we’ve used in broader terms for the whole university too.”
A growing membership
Another notable operator is SportsAble, a dedicated multi sports club, established 40 years ago to enable people with a sensorial or physical disability to enjoy quality, coached sport and physical activity sessions, 365 days of the year. While the focus is on community provision, the charity has helped develop many successful Paralympians.
Attracting new members remains an important focus, explains CEO Kerl Haslam. “Retaining members isn’t an issue. The average member remains with us for over five years, with 26 per cent staying for more than a decade.”
While these are enviable statistics compared to most fitness facilities, attracting 16-24 year-olds is a priority, as more than 40 per cent of the membership is aged 60 or over. “Membership fees need to be heavily subsidised to keep SportsAble as accessible as possible,” says Haslam. “Growing the membership from the current 530 to 750 will add valuable funds to alleviate some of this pressure.”
With an estimated 190,000 people living with disability in Berkshire alone, SportsAble shifted its marketing and community outreach strategy. It went from targeting individuals to working with other community organisations which support people with a disability, promoting the benefits that physical activity can have on their members’ mental and physical wellbeing.
“This has been a much more effective use of resources,” continues Haslam. “For example, we’ve partnered with two local hospitals via the NHS Frimley Health Foundation Trust. Recent amputee patients are now referred to SportsAble to play wheelchair basketball as part of their rehabilitation. Once here, they’re introduced to our whole range of sports and many patients have since joined the club.”
“The activity has a hugely positive effect on the patients involved,” says Nicola Bobyk, senior occupational therapist at one of the participating hospitals.
“The sessions really lift their mood and help instil a sense of achievement and self-fulfilment – emotions many may not have experienced since their amputation.”
The charity also runs a school outreach programme, offering nine to 13 year-olds with an impairment the opportunity to play adaptive sport, both at their school and at SportsAble.
Haslam says: “These are just two examples of how we’re working with community organisations to improve awareness and access to our disability sports provision. We also invite other charities to use our facilities for a nominal fee, in return for actively promoting SportsAble.
“It’s proved a highly successful way to recruit new joiners, despite the issues disabled people face with travel: only 43 per cent of our members live within 5-miles of SportsAble, with 25 per cent travelling more than 10 miles.”