Revealed: The obstacles to exercise facing disabled people in the age of coronavirus

Jeremy Wilson
·5-min read
Anne Wafula Strike, former Paralympian, now on board of UK Athletics  - Jeff Gilbert
Anne Wafula Strike, former Paralympian, now on board of UK Athletics - Jeff Gilbert
Women's Sport Social Embed
Women's Sport Social Embed

For Julia, who is disabled and uses a wheelchair to move around, visits to her local community leisure centre were always about much more than simply 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.

Upon returning when the facility reopened, she discovered that the sauna, jacuzzi and steam room would remain 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 practical 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 a refusal to countenance any reduced membership fee 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 £49 outlay.

And so she decided to shop around. There were three other options in the Midlands town in which she lives. 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.

Option three seemed promising until the lift broke down both on her way up and down from the gym 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 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.

Anne Wafula Strike, former Paralympian, now on board of UK Athletics - Jeff Gilbert
Anne Wafula Strike, former Paralympian, now on board of UK Athletics - Jeff Gilbert

“People are calling me with a lot of stories like this,” she said. “There is already very little adapted for disabled people in recreational sport. I really fear that the pandemic and social distancing will make disabled people exempt from visiting gyms. 

“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. It’s a fundamental issue.”

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. There is also a marked gender gap, with only 19 per cent of disabled women getting at least 30 minutes of physical activity five times a week, compared to 26 per cent of disabled men.

“It is franky 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 charity trust that operates public leisure in Peterborough. Vivacity have provided financially viable services to every section of the local community since 2010 but, with no specific government bailout loans for public leisure, cannot continue with a projected £8.5 million budget hole and are handing operations back to the local council. Specific examples of currently lost services in Peterborough include the hydrotherapy pool which, in normal times, would be used by six disabled people and two physiotherapists per sessions, as well as indoor table cricket. 

“The main barrier is social distancing,” says Francis. “Operators are also really up against it financially. 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% of all public leisure facilities could not viably reopen. “Without financial support we will lose many of these precious facilities for good, depriving communities across the UK of vital public services 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 and trusted 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 for a birthday 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.”