Disabled people are twice as likely to be inactive than the general population, with 43% completing less than 30 minutes of exercise per week. But Ben Andrews is determined to change that.
Aged just 17, he realised disabled people were struggling to access classes and equipment in his local gym and began volunteering and developing a scheme to help.
Fast forward eight years and Ben, now a qualified fitness instructor, has successfully pitched his concept to the NHS, securing funding for Empower - a pilot scheme breaking down barriers facing disabled people and making exercise fun.
Under the scheme, participants receive two hour-long one-to-one training sessions per week for up to three months. Activities can include anything from walking to intensive gym workouts, with the aim of increasing the person’s motivation to exercise independently.
“It feels great to see a client’s fitness levels and confidence improve,” Ben, now 25, from Salford, tells HuffPost UK. “To see them go from sitting at home all day, doing the same thing day-in-day-out, to going through the programme and getting to the point where they can tell me to politely get lost because they no longer need help - that’s the best feeling.”
Disabled people are at an increased risk of developing long-term conditions including obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, anxiety and depression. “Physical activity is a proven method to not only treat and manage these conditions, but to prevent them occurring in the first place,” says Ben.
However, there are multiple barriers preventing disabled people from enjoying exercise and Ben says accessibility must “go beyond an accessible toilet, lift and ramp”.
“There needs to be considerations around contrasting colours, lighting, accessible signage and visual and auditory signalling,” he explains. “There also needs to be stricter regulations around health and safety, particularly in gyms, if there are weights all over the floor, this can be a hazard for anyone, but especially people who are visually impaired.”
On top of that, there are also barriers with equipment, with disabled people struggling to use certain machines, and social and societal barriers, where staff may not be trained to make classes suitable for people with learning difficulties.
This was something that prevented Sami Habib, a 17-year-old who has autism and learning difficulties, from enjoying exercise in the past.
“He tried some fitness classes but I think he found it overwhelming,” Sami’s mum, Ferdy, tells HuffPost UK. “Some staff weren’t trained properly to explain things to Sami. Because of his autism, he needs clear, simple instructions. It felt like the instructors bombarded him and because he didn’t understand, the next time [we went to the gym] you could just see he didn’t want to go in.”
Sami also has Erb’s palsy, which restricts his movement in one arm, but Ben has helped him learn how to best utilise equipment to suit his needs. The instructor has also worked closely with Sami to discover what types of exercise he enjoys and Ferdy says this patient communication has given her son a new-found enthusiasm for fitness.
“Now he can’t wait to go to the gym,” she says. “Tonight he’s going to do circuits, not with Ben, he’s now confident enough to go in and join another session by himself.”
As well as delivering training sessions to individuals, Empower, which is funded by NHS Salford CCG and Unlimited Potential, talks to gyms about improving accessibility and trains community-based staff to better work with disabled clients.
Ben believes changing perceptions around disability is essential to creating environments where disabled people feel welcome after their time with Empower has ended.
“There’s a real lack of association between disabled people and physical activity,” he says. “When it comes to keeping active, we are only exposed to disabled people being inactive or being Paralympian’s, one extreme or the other, so we only offer related opportunities. For the majority of disabled people who don’t want to be inactive but have no desire to be competitive athletes, there isn’t much available.”
Empower also works with family members and carers of participants to make plans around aspects such as travel, which may be a barrier to accessing fitness in itself.
“Many disabled people cannot drive which means they are reliant on public transport,” Ben explains. “Lack of audio and visual signalling on public transport means that they are often inaccessible for people with sensory and learning disabilities. With many obstacles to navigate, a commute without transport can be just as daunting.”
Ferdy says the holistic approach Ben takes to fitness accessibility has improved Sami’s confidence both in and outside of class.
“He is a lot healthier, he’s very very confident,” she says. “Even things like flashing his card at reception and then knowing where he’s going - he wouldn’t have done that before at all. I think a lot of the kids are bringing out their own personalities thanks to Ben.”
She also belives the scheme has had a positive impact on her son’s mental health. “Sami got into a bit of depression because his dad recently passed away as well,” she says. “Ben supported him emotionally as well as physically and it’s helped him in so many ways.”
Although Empower is currently only available to people in the Salford area, Ben hopes it will have a nationwide impact on how people view disability and fitness.
“Long term, I’d hope that this work would serve to create more opportunities for disabled people,” he says. “Both to keep active and to manage their health and wellbeing, in turn reducing the health inequalities that disabled people experience.”