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Don't Leave It to Paralympians - We All Need to Do Our Bit

05/04/2016 14:50

For most of us, sport and activity is something we do for fun... so why is it out of reach for so many disabled people?

The Guardian revealed this week that a recent poll, conducted for Leonard Cheshire Disability, has highlighted the fact that 47% of disabled adults had not completed 30 minutes or more of moderate exercise in the past week. Why does this matter? It matters because almost one fifth of the UK's population self-identify as disabled. Disabled people should have every opportunity to be as active as the non-disabled 80%. Yet the reality is that they are half as likely to be as active as non-disabled peers.

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Above: 64% of disabled people would prefer to take part in sport and physical activity with a mix of disabled and non-disabled people.

At a time when we are told that physical inactivity is one of the biggest killers inherent in today's lifestyles, and that sitting down is the new smoking, we know that being active can make a fundamental difference to everyone's quality of life, increasing individual health, wellbeing and independence and even benefiting the economy. So what's to be done? Is celebrating the astonishing achievements of disabled Paralympians going to help the disabled dad who used to love a kick about, the pensioner who can't do the vigorous hill walks he used to enjoy, or the teenager who is excluded from the dance club her sister goes to?

Yes, Paralympians are amazing human beings, even Superhumans. They may inspire those who witness their achievements to dream of emulating them, but that only works in that fantasy life we all have where I can be Serena Williams or Jordanne Whiley on the tennis court. So let's get real. For most people taking part in physical activity or sport is something they do for fun, fitness and friendship. It's an everyday part of real life for those of us lucky enough to be able to access it... so why is it out of reach for so many disabled people and, more to the point, what can we do about it?

At Spirit of 2012 we know from our own evaluation that disabled people face lots of barriers to taking part in sport or physical activity and these are often much more complex than the provision of ramps (or lack of). Investing in projects that help to reduce and remove all barriers - physical, cultural and attitudinal - is our focus.

In January this year Spirit awarded our biggest ever grant of £4.5 million to a UK wide consortium led by the English Federation of Disability Sport to manage an initiative called Get Out &Get Active. The funding will enable thousands of people of all abilities to access and enjoy activity in eighteen locations across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland over the next 3 years. The project's focus is not on the sport, but on the experience for the individual - connecting currently inactive people to fun, inclusive physical activity by helping them take the first steps and then remain active. Two things are crucial to this: broadening what is on offer so that more activities welcome disabled and non-disabled people on equal terms, and reaching out directly to people who believe physical activity isn't for them because no one ever thought to include them before.

The Guardian article rightly argues that Paralympians are only a small part of the story. Spirit evaluation evidence shows that the impact of role models is greater the closer to home it is: Paralympian heroes bestride pedestals while leaders and activists living in your community can open minds and change attitudes. Local, inclusive activities which bring people of all abilities to take part together can increase participation by all groups and help shift limiting and negative perceptions towards disability and impairment.

A great example is the Youth Sport Trust Inclusive Futures programme, which Spirit funds and which to date has empowered over 1700 young people with and without disabilities, by giving them the opportunity and training to work alongside each other to support and deliver physical activities in schools and communities for almost 11,500 peers and older people. Spirit also funds a raft of projects in Scotland as part of the legacy of the 2014 Commonwealth Games which are helping people with mental health issues and those with dementia in communities and care settings to enjoy activity too.

We know that in making these investments we are tapping into a rich seam of aspiration. EFDS research shows that seven in ten disabled people want to be more active, representing a huge and 'untapped' market. 64% of disabled people would prefer to take part in sport and physical activity with a mix of disabled and non-disabled people along the lines of Inclusive Futures. That's what our projects will offer over the next few years.

Let's hope that by 2020, when excitement mounts about the Tokyo Paralympics, society has grown up, stopped believing in fantasies, and taken on responsibility for responding practically to the inequalities in participation. As a proud nation let's cheer the Jonnie Peacocks and the Hannah Cockrofts to the rafters for being the great athletes they are, not put on their shoulders the burden of expectation that, as well as winning races, they should somehow be changing the world for the whole disabled community.

That's a job for all of us.

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