Covid rules pre­vent dis­abled peo­ple from join­ing ‘healthy na­tion’

Cam­paign groups are in­creas­ingly wor­ried that leisure fa­cil­i­ties for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties could be lost for ever, writes Jeremy Wil­son

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Women's Sport Monthly -

For Ju­lia, who is dis­abled and a wheel­chair user, vis­its to her lo­cal leisure cen­tre were al­ways about much more than her phys­i­cal health. “You felt like you were part of some­thing rather than one of the ‘alone’ peo­ple,” she says. “I was get­ting fit­ter and in­ter­act­ing with peo­ple. We would be in the cafe af­ter. It was the only thing I did for my­self.”

The coro­n­avirus pan­demic closed all gyms and leisure cen­tres be­tween March and July, but it is Ju­lia’s sub­se­quent ex­pe­ri­ence that has been hard­est to bear.

When the fa­cil­ity re­opened, she found that the sauna, jacuzzi and steam room were closed, none of the re­duced rota of ex­er­cise classes were suit­able for her dis­abil­ity and, in a gym filled with tread­mills, cross train­ers and ex­er­cise bikes, the only op­tions were dumb­bells and a few weight ma­chines.

A mem­ber of staff did also sug­gest bad­minton or tennis – de­spite there be­ing no wheel­chair-spe­cific ses­sions – and swim­ming. Yet when Ju­lia asked whether there would be any as­sis­tance to get her into the pool, the re­ply was ‘no’.

What also grated was there was no re­duc­tion in mem­ber­ship fees to mit­i­gate for the lack of op­tions. Covid-19 has also had a fi­nan­cial im­pact and, with chil­dren to con­sider, Ju­lia was strug­gling to still jus­tify the monthly out­lay of £49.

She de­cided to shop around. There were three other op­tions in her Mid­lands town. The next gym was ap­proached by a steep slope that she could not push her wheel­chair up, as well as an awk­ward out­wards-open­ing door. Some passers-by did even­tu­ally help, but it hardly felt prac­ti­cal for her.

Another seemed promis­ing un­til the lift broke down and she was left stranded in­side. When the fourth and fi­nal gym asked her to sign a waiver say­ing that, in the event of fire, she was re­spon­si­ble for get­ting her­self down the stairs to evac­u­ate the build­ing, she felt she was out of op­tions.

Ju­lia’s story is no sur­prise to Anne Wa­fula Strike, a for­mer Paralympic ath­lete and now a board mem­ber at UK Ath­let­ics, the Bri­tish Paralympic As­so­ci­a­tion and Ac­tive Es­sex.

“There is al­ready very lit­tle adapted for dis­abled peo­ple in recre­ational sport. I fear the pan­demic and so­cial dis­tanc­ing will make dis­abled peo­ple ex­empt from vis­it­ing gyms,” she said. “I want the Gov­ern­ment to pay at­ten­tion. I want to know how dis­abled peo­ple can be part of this healthy na­tion that Boris

John­son is talk­ing about. Dis­abled peo­ple’s voices are of­ten so silent but we can­not stay silent. We need to make fa­cil­i­ties ac­ces­si­ble.”

Sport Eng­land have been sur­vey­ing ac­tiv­ity lev­els through­out the pan­demic and their lat­est data shows that the num­ber of dis­abled peo­ple who are reg­u­larly ac­tive stands at 23 per cent, com­pared to 31 per cent of the wider pop­u­la­tion. The fig­ures also show that only 19 per cent of dis­abled women are get­ting at least 30 min­utes of phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity five times a week, com­pared to 26 per cent of dis­abled men.

“It is tragic that, while a huge ef­fort is be­ing put into re­open­ing ser­vices, those for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties are not be­ing re­opened,” said Ste­wart Fran­cis, the chair of Vi­vac­ity, a char­i­ta­ble trust that pro­vides fi­nan­cially vi­able ser­vices to the lo­cal com­mu­nity in Peter­bor­ough. But, with no spe­cific gov­ern­ment bail-out loans for pub­lic leisure, Vi­vac­ity can­not con­tinue with a pro­jected £8.5 mil­lion bud­get hole and are hand­ing op­er­a­tions back to the coun­cil.

“Op­er­a­tors are also re­ally up against it fi­nan­cially,” said Fran­cis. “There is no doubt that peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties are be­ing pe­nalised and we’ve got to raise aware­ness be­cause they need these fa­cil­i­ties most. Many of these peo­ple have not had any phys­i­cal ex­er­cise for six months and it’s of­ten where they have con­tact with other peo­ple. These ser­vices are a life­line.” Com­mu­nity Leisure UK, which rep­re­sents pub­lic leisure op­er­a­tors, found that swim­ming classes, ex­er­cise re­fer­rals and so­cial pre­scrib­ing, were all among the top four ser­vices that had not re­sumed. Their re­search also showed that 44 per cent of all pub­lic leisure fa­cil­i­ties could not vi­ably re­open. “With­out fi­nan­cial sup­port we will lose many of these pre­cious fa­cil­i­ties for good, at a time when the Gov­ern­ment is urg­ing peo­ple to get fit and lose weight to beat Covid-19,” said Mark Tweedie, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of CLUK. The ‘We Are Un­de­feat­able’ cam­paign, a move­ment of 15 health and so­cial care char­i­ties, which is backed by Sport Eng­land, has launched a range of dig­i­tal sug­ges­tions to help peo­ple get ac­tive both in­side and out­side their home.

It is a cru­cial re­source but, like many oth­ers, what Ju­lia re­ally wants is a com­mu­nity fa­cil­ity that is both ac­ces­si­ble and af­ford­able. “I met friends at the park two weeks ago and that was the first time I have had any in­ter­ac­tion since March,” she said. “Miss­ing the gym means I’m not so­cial­is­ing and ex­er­cis­ing. It has af­fected my men­tal health. You grad­u­ally lose that en­ergy and will to do some­thing.”

‘Dis­abled peo­ple’s voices are of­ten so silent but we can­not stay silent. We need to make the fa­cil­i­ties ac­ces­si­ble’

Con­cern: Anne Wa­fula Strike says dis­abled peo­ple could be­come marginalis­ed from gyms

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