Skip to content.

The national charity and leading voice for disabled people in sport and activity

Menu. Open and close this menu with the ENTER key.

Vice Chair, Phil Friend: Let’s be better, not just ‘back to normal’

Activity Alliance Vice Chair, Phil Friend, discusses what we learnt and are still learning from this pandemic for disabled people in sport and activity.

Young disabled people taking part in an adapted cycling session in the park

Monday 19 July, some are calling it ‘freedom day’. It is far from that for me and many other disabled people.

As much as I am back enjoying time with my family again and doing a little more than we could six months ago, pre-vaccine, I still have concerns. I am not sure I will be back to a full-time activity calendar any time soon either. That’s why I wanted to write this piece with my Activity Alliance and personal hat on.

As Vice Chair I have watched the team work tirelessly during the pandemic, to ensure we continue in our fight for fairness for disabled people in sport and activity. We were seeing improvements in activity rates before lockdown. For me, all the pandemic has done is exacerbate all the barriers that existed for disabled people for far too lPhil Friendong pre-COVID-19. And now as we all look forward to a somewhat brighter, more relaxed future, we CANNOT forget the lessons we have learnt.

It has been incredibly tough for so many. But no group has been affected as much as disabled people. We must make this more about building back better, not going ‘back to normal’.

We know sport and activity breaks down barriers, it is a powerful tool for bringing people together. I’ve made friends for life through the sports I’ve played.

But imagine waking up every morning feeling so lonely, lost or at risk that being active is the last thing you care about. You can’t get out of your home and may not have anyone to interact with, to support you to be active. And this happens daily for many disabled people  and was the case for many before the pandemic. So, expecting disabled people to feel ‘free’ now, and return to a fully active lifestyle, is just wishful thinking.

Our second Annual Survey revealed the stark impact of this crisis on disabled people’s activity levels. Respondents said the lack of activity has led to both their physical and mental health being harder to manage. Feelings of loneliness and social isolation were frequently voiced.

For people to be more active post-pandemic it will take systemic change. All the cogs on the system wheel need to work together to ensure individuals feel confident and trust again. To be more active, we need whole-system collaboration and long-term support.

Here’s what we learnt during the pandemic or are still gaining insight on in our years of experience at Activity Alliance:

  • “Nothing about us without us” – that’s a disability rights mantra. Involve disabled people from the very beginning in decision making, co-design, co-production to find the right solutions.
  • Prioritise the people most in need in sport and activity, the least active, this does not mean making us feel like we are ‘needy’, or ‘vulnerable’. Invest where it matters most.
  • Embrace innovation and technology – but embrace how inclusive and accessible you can make them. Expect designers and suppliers to be on the ball when it comes to disabled consumers or participants. If you are going to spend on activity technology, add accessibility as essential, not a ‘nice to have’.
  • Take activity to where we are and be flexible. We cannot all get to daily sessions in leisure centres and may need extra support to enjoy the experience. Some days home activities are all I want to do – but I need more accessible local facilities to have more choice.
  • It will take more than sport and activity to enable disabled people to be and stay active. Think transport, social care, education, health and so on – the impact in our lives stretches further than just the playing field.

I am hearing a lot of talk about ‘personal responsibility’ from the government as we reunite again. I believe leaders all have a personal responsibility for disabled people in sport and activity. There needs to be guidelines, governance, and shared values in what we expect, so as we re-emerge, disabled people do not have to settle for second best. Tokenistic, minimal, quick-win gestures for disabled people do nothing if we want an active nation in the future.

Activity Alliance is here to help organisations to improve their opportunities. We want to see change for the better, not a return to a restrictive nation that settles for ‘normal’. Nobody should miss out or ever feel forgotten again in sport and activity.

Our Reopening Activity: An inclusive response was written in consultation with partners across sport, leisure and disability equality. We encourage providers to consider this guidance as part of their ongoing commitment to disabled people’s inclusion.