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
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