Many of Britain’s gyms, leisure centres and swimming pools are “no-go zones” for disabled people and will struggle to cope with an expected surge in interest in fitness activities, following the Paralympic games, campaigners have warned.
A crowdsourced survey of hundreds of gyms across the UK by charity volunteers suggests that many local facilities are partially inaccessible, difficult to navigate and expensive to join. Some did not have specialist gym equipment and nearly half lacked staff trained in disabilityawareness.
One of the key legacy aims of the Paralympics is to increase participation in sports by Britain’s 11 million disabled people. Just 18% of disabled adults undertake physical activity for more than 30 minutes a week, compared with 38% of non-disabled adults, according to Sport England.
The success of the Games has raised hopes of a surge in interest in disability sports participation, but the survey of gyms and leisure centres, carried out on behalf of the charity Leonard Cheshire Disability, found that many facilities are unprepared to capitalise on the potential demand.
The charity said: “Gyms and leisure facilities are a crucial ‘first point of entry’ to sports and physical activity for most adults. Yet for many disabled people they are ‘no-go zones’. Inaccessible changing rooms, steps, poor staff training and lack of usable sports equipment are some of the common barriers that can prevent disabled customers from getting involved.”
Guy Parckar, the charity’s head of policy, said that while most gyms were “broadly accessible” and complied with disability discrimination laws to fit ramps and lifts, many had failed to get right small but crucial details. These could make all the difference when it came to attracting or retaining disabled customers.
Although most gyms provided disabled parking spaces, for example, the survey found that some bays were not wide enough to enable a wheelchair to be unpacked from a car. Parckar said in many cases, improvements such as installing easy-to-read signs or colour contrast markings on steps, would be relatively inexpensive. It was crucial that gyms sought advice from local disabled people on how to improve access, he added.
The survey of 300 UK leisure facilities found that:
• Nearly a third of gyms did not have an automatic door at the entrance to the gym, while some were fitted with heavy internal doors that were difficult to open. One survey reporter said he watched a wheelchair user forced to open such a door by pushing it with his head.
• Although many gyms had lifts, just over one in five were not working properly. A common problem was that lifts were too small for larger wheelchairs and control buttons were set too high. In one case, it was reported that a lift leading to the gym area of a leisure centre did not appear to have been working for more than a year.
• A quarter of swimming pools did not have hoists to support disabled people to get into the water, while 31% of gyms did not have any fitness equipment that was suitable for disabled people.
The survey, carried out as part of Leonard Cheshire Disability’s Exercise Your Right campaign, also highlighted instances where gyms provided excellent services to disabled people. Highly rated gyms were identified as such, not just because they had accessible buildings or equipment but because they practiced good “customer care and management.” They also employed staff who were trained to be aware of disabled people’s needs.
There is a potentially huge appetite for sport and exercise among disabled people, according to a separate survey of nearly 1,000 disabled people, carried out this week by Leonard Cheshire Disability. It found more than two thirds of respondents said they would like to take part in sport more regularly. Although a quarter said they exercised twice a week or more, a third of those surveyed said they never took part in sport or exercise.
Some 85% of respondents were not members of gyms or leisure centres. Asked why they did not consider joining, more than half said it was too expensive, while 26% said difficulty in accessing facilities put them off
Just under half of respondents said the Paralympics had inspired them to get more involved in sport or exercise, and 26% thought that the Games would encourage more disabled people to take part. But while 89% felt the Games would leave a “positive legacy” overall, just 12% believed it would lead to improved accessibility.
David Stalker, chief executive of the Health and Fitness Industry Association, which represents more than 3,000 UK gyms and leisure centres, said it was concerned at the findings.
Stalker said the association would be continuing its work with charities to get more disabled people active: “We will continue to work with our operator members to go above and beyond the minimum requirements to deliver a user friendly environment for all their customers.”