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Blog: Prioritising disabled people in sport critical post-lockdown

The COVID-19 pandemic has left its mark on the sport and leisure sector. We may be down, but we’re not out. It’s time to fight back and return to the sports and activities that we love. But we must do so in an inclusive way, one that puts disabled people at the heart of sport and leisure.

Midland Mencap Flyerz hockey players in training session

In April, Sport England’s latest Active Lives Survey findings confirmed our fears. The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in an unprecedented increase in inactivity for disabled people. 2.7% more disabled people were classed as inactive between November 2019 and November 2020 than the previous 12-month period. While findings from a recent YouGov poll commissioned by us flagged more cause for concern. Just over 7 in 10 disabled people (72%) agree that the coronavirus pandemic has made sport and physical activity less fair for disabled people. And only 3 in 10 (30%) disabled people agree that disabled people have the same opportunity to be active as non-disabled people.

As the leading voice for disabled people in sport and activity, we will not allow disabled people to become ‘the forgotten group’. Prioritising disabled people in sport and leisure is absolutely critical as the sector rebuilds itself post-lockdown.

In May, we launched our new three-year strategy, Achieving Fairness, with an immediate focus on how we respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. It sets out a clear ambition to close the gap between disabled and non-disabled people’s inactivity levels within a generation. Two clear goals will drive the strategy forward - changing attitudes towards disabled people and embedding inclusive practice in sport and activity. We want disabled people to be at the heart of our nation’s recovery.

It has been great to see several high-profile sports launch inclusive campaigns and programmes recently that directly support disabled people’s return to sport and activity. We worked closely with England Football on their ‘Football Your Way’ campaign. With inclusion and accessibility embedded throughout, it helped support disabled footballers to get back on the pitch. We welcomed the LTA’s new inclusion strategy for tennis in Britain, which looks to embed a culture of everyday inclusion in all aspects of the sport. And British Wheelchair Basketball are rolling out their new Inspire a Generation programme which will deliver taster sessions in communities across the country to introduce more people to basketball in fun and informal settings.Image shows kick off at Powerchair final at FA Disability Cup 2016As a football fan, I’m delighted to see the FA Disability Cup return to St George’s Park this weekend (17-18 July 2021). A year delayed owing to the pandemic, it is the largest competition of its kind in this country for players with specific impairments. Five hard-fought finals will take place over two days, and for the first-time matches will be broadcast live on BT Sport. Making it the most accessible live broadcast of a football match in the UK to date with audio description, British Sign Language, and subtitles available for viewers. It is a fantastic weekend and one we hugely support.

Our vision is fairness for disabled people in sport and activity. It is ambitious and we know that we cannot achieve it alone. These campaigns and programmes will go some way to achieving fairness, but they are just the tip of the inclusion iceberg. In reopening activities, we have an opportunity to reset and reconfigure our ideas and operations. My hope is that organisations will scrutinise their own shortcomings and overhaul their approaches that to date have simply not done enough for disabled people.

It won’t be as simple as flicking a switch. But we have seen how well the sector adapted to delivering home activity during lockdown. Now, we must continue to adapt and improve to ensure that as the sector encourages people back, we do so in a completely inclusive way – taking into account everyone’s motivations and fears and treating all equally. Rebuilding people’s trust and confidence to return will take time. And, for those who aren’t ready to return to sporting environments I hope home activity can continue.

The last 15 months have been hugely challenging for all of us. Disabled people continue to be one of the least active groups in society and the situation is getting worse. We must all act now to ensure disabled people have a level playing field in sport and activity. Inclusion and fairness across the sector are key to achieving a more active nation.

COVID-19 information and resources

Since March 2020, we have provided a range of resources and responses to support sport and leisure providers through this period. Visit our COVID-19 page to access our latest guidance on reopening activity in an inclusive way and Sport England's FAQs on government guidance and exemptions for disabled people.

Please get in touch with our team if you need any advice or support. Email or call 01509 227750.