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Jul 10, 2019 | by Leanne Wightman

Disability, physical activity and wellbeing

This week’s guest blog – the third in our Measuring Wellbeing series that focuses on improving the wellbeing of people with disabilities – comes from Leanne Wightman, coordinator of the Get Yourself Active project, run by Disability Rights UK. The project supports disabled and non-disabled people to enjoy being active together, supported by the National Lottery and Sport England. This blog outlines their findings from the evaluation of the project.

A headline that says ‘Physical activity improves wellbeing’ would come as little surprise to people working in the wellbeing sector.

That wouldn’t change if you read the same was true for disabled people. The benefits of sport and recreation are well documented, from increased physical and mental fitness through to reduced isolation. 

Perhaps it’s a little more sobering to know that, like many other areas of their lives, disabled people are more than twice as likely to not take part in regular physical activity compared to their non-disabled counterparts.

One of the biggest surprises for us was the main reason given by disabled people for not participating: they simply didn’t have enough information. A staggering 75% said they wouldn’t know where to look to find out about getting involved in sport and leisure activities that suited them.

This finding came to light after the first few years of the project. We funded two coordinators based in disabled people’s user-led organisations to support local physical activity providers to develop opportunities that work for disabled people, and directly supported disabled people to access them. Our focus was on increasing the number of disabled people with personal budgets regularly participating in physical activity or sport.

Findings from the evaluation

When we began the ‘Get Yourself Active’ project four years ago, with support from the National Lottery and Sport England, we had a good idea about the kinds of difficulties disabled people had when it came to getting active. We also knew that the solutions wouldn’t come from just one organisation or group, but from coalitions of people coming together.

An evaluation of the project suggests our instincts were correct. Our evaluation found:

  • The cost of activities (21%) and inaccessible facilities (18%) also got in the way of people getting active.
  • Health and social care workers, as well as those in the sport and leisure industry, have a key role in supporting people to get active. That includes those in the leisure industry making their services more accessible to disabled customers.
  • Involving local disabled people’s organisations (run by and for disabled people) helped improve access and relationships with sports providers and local leisure centres.

When reflecting upon individual outcomes, respondents were asked to assess their physical and mental wellbeing at the point that they joined Get Yourself Active and six months later. Six months into their involvement with the programme: 

  • Over half of respondents felt good about themselves on a more regular basis (16 of 28) or had been socialising on a more regular basis (15 of 28). 
  • Half of respondents had more energy to spare on a regular basis (14 of 28) or felt cheerful on a more regular basis (14 of 28). 
  • Just under a third of respondents felt that they had a good level of energy more often (9 of 28) and/or felt that they get a good night of sleep most of the time (8 of 28). 

While many social workers also highlighted a lack of knowledge around local facilities (71%), many assessed disabled service users as needing to increase their physical activity (64%). It was also felt that the collaboration between sports providers and disabled people’s user-led organisations was seen as vital to the co-production process, and also laid the foundations for wider partnerships. 

Benefits beyond individuals

The evaluation, which was carried out by Traverse (previously OPM), also suggested increased physical activity led to fewer demands on social care and GP services. There needs to be more research on this, but the indications show there are multiple benefits in supporting people to be more active, and not just for individuals.

With cuts to public services happening across the country, it’s even more important to avoid simply focussing on basic services for basic needs, even when resources are in short supply. If we are genuinely concerned about people’s wellbeing, we need to be also looking at how they can be part of the communities they live in. Getting involved in sport and leisure activities is one way to do that – and disabled people should have those opportunities, the same as anyone else.

To find out more, you can download the evaluation.


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Evaluating projects for people with learning difficulties: when 'off-the-shelf' can miss the mark

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