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05 Feb 2021 104

Thought leadership article: Time to put inclusion at the centre of sport and physical activity

UK Coaching Diversity and Inclusion Manager Esther Jones analyses the impact of the pandemic on disabled people's activity levels.

This week Activity Alliance, the leading voice for disabled people in sport and physical activity, released the findings of its annual survey, which shows the true impact of the pandemic on disabled people’s activity levels. 

The stats are stark – twice as many disabled people felt that coronavirus greatly reduced their ability to do sport or physical activity, compared to non-disabled people, and almost a quarter stated that they had not received enough information about how to be active during the pandemic.

We know that disabled people have always been underrepresented in sport and physical activity but before the pandemic, these gaps were narrowing, and inroads were being made. Disabled people were feeling more optimistic about being active and activity levels were increasing.

Although this gap was narrowing, Sport England’s stats show that disabled people are still twice as likely to be inactive and we must do all we can to prevent a backward step.

"Disabled people feel sport isn't for them."

What concerns me the most are those extra barriers now in place for disabled people – the need to self-isolate, fear of catching the virus, concerns about social distancing and lack of space to be active are just some. We cannot let the pandemic undo the work that has been done and return to an environment where disabled people feel sport isn’t for them.

We know the benefits of sport and activity on our physical and mental health – it’s now more important than ever. And we can’t ignore the fact that social isolation, and a lack of activity is having a profound effect on disabled people and those with long term health conditions.

Sport and physical activity are essential as we rebuild, and coaches will play a vital role. 

We have an opportunity to make sure that, for the first time, inclusion is central in our minds as we return to sport and physical activity. The reset must ensure that services are accessible across the board. Activity Alliance’s report shows how COVID-19 is having a significant impact on the ability of disabled people to be active – we must use this information and opportunity to build inclusive processes into activity. An environment where we understand people and are able to support their needs as they return will be critical.

We must support coaches with confidence to have conversations with people about where they are and what barriers they are facing – physically and psychologically. Coaches must be confident in having open and honest discussions to truly understand the person in front of them; in terms of what motivates them, what scares them and what they’re looking to achieve. 

We must also support coaches to be able to adapt sessions and activities to really meet the needs of where people are now.

This is a skill coaches should employ with everyone they coach as we rebuild. These will be critical skills when working with disabled people, but also an approach that will benefit everyone when we are able to return. I always say that coaching is person-centred – but this now really matters. When people come back to sport and physical activity, coaches need to ensure it meets their needs and that they have a positive experience. If it does not, they won’t continue. Activity must be relevant, enjoyable and meet the needs of those taking part

Ensure accessible and inclusive sport for all

And it is our role at UK Coaching to ensure coaches have the tools and resources to ensure accessible and inclusive sport for all. We have run a number of Time2Learn sessions on 'Returning to coaching' from previous lockdowns, and supporting people to be in inclusive in their practice.

We also have various resources, tools and workshops on inclusive practice, and specifically working with disabled people in conjunction with Activity Alliance and other disability sports organisations.

This research shows the need to ensure coaches have the skills and tools required to offer truly inclusive opportunities and have the confidence to deliver the best experience for disabled people.  We are working to support coaches to return to coaching as a priority, and continue to work with Activity Alliance on ensuring that coaches can be supported, as we know how critical the role of the coach is. 

Access the full findings of Activity Alliance's survey at activityalliance.org.uk/annual-survey.

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