The new Activity Alliance strategy is an important document but real change for disability inclusion sport requires a counter-intuitive approach to what is not only a sector of society that consistently misses out but also a significant market sector. John Eady makes the social and business case for inclusivity.
The Covid crisis has spawned a whole range of challenges and reassessments, not least access to, and the importance of, being physically active. Across the UK the pandemic has had a real impact on activity levels and for every heart-warming story of people discovering the joys of the great outdoors there are many more (largely untold) tales of those for whom lockdown has reinforced the absence of, or further limited, their opportunities to be active.
This is highlighted by data presented by the Activity Alliance, the national charity for disability inclusion sport. Its new three-year strategy, titled Achieving Fairness, takes access to opportunity for activity as its starting point and cites a poll in which 72% of disabled people agree that lockdown has made this less fair for disabled people.
Addressing declining levels of activity for disabled people is a main strand of the strategy but the Activity Alliance rightly reminds us that the problem existed before the Covid-19 crisis; before the pandemic disabled people were twice as likely to be inactive as non-disabled people.
Achieving Fairness sets out the ambition to close this activity gap “within a generation” and explains how the Activity Alliance intends to do this. There are two clear goals: changing attitudes towards disabled people and embedding inclusive practice in sport and activity. These inform four key objectives: championing the voices of disabled people; using expertise and insight to educate, inform and influence; addressing inequalities via collaboration, engagement and delivery; and maximising the effective use of investment.
This is all very well but there is an argument that this strategy is a little too measured (or perhaps unmeasured) in its challenge to sport and leisure providers. The sport and leisure sector needs to be challenged and the key to genuine inclusivity for disabled people lies in the numbers. For example, 18% of the working-age population in Britain is disabled, as defined as by the Equality Act 2010 [Source: Employers’ Forum on Disability]. So, even leaving out older people (among whom this the proportion rises substantially) and the under 18s, there is a market of seven million people with spending power, a market that is, to a substantial degree, unserved.
Where I would take issue with the Activity Alliance is its headline aim related to changing attitudes to disability and disabled people. The fact that its polling shows that 85% of adults agree that attitudes to disability need to improve is, I would argue, indicative of a general positivity. The real problem is a Rumsfeld-ian one: in the most part those who matter don’t know what they don’t know.
This lack of knowledge, context and comprehension has a direct effect. Providers and those who are (or should be) charged with responsibility to make a relevant offer to attract and accommodate disabled people have no concept of the overall scale of the market in their locality; nor do many have a clear idea, in performance terms, of what attracting an appropriate proportion of the ‘disability market’ should look like.
It is simply insufficient to have facilities accessible to, and staff trained to work with, disabled people if no one with a disability is turning up. Why shouldn’t facility operators and other deliverers of services commissioned by local authorities be charged with responsibility to attract and entertain a predetermined proportion of this market?
That said, it is also incumbent upon local authorities in particular, but also others, to start to develop and facilitate communications mechanisms that enable people with disabilities and other defined needs to be ‘in the system’, offering the option to know about, attend or at the very least turn down options to take part.
Sam Orde, the chair of Activity Alliance, is quite right when he says, “It is not right or fair that disabled people continue to miss out on the huge benefits of being active.” But it not just a case of the sport and leisure sector failing to serve the needs of a significant part of the community. Disabled people as a ‘market’ are simply not on the radar so it is hardly surprising that not enough is being done to cater for them. In addition, ignoring or excluding a major market sector is bad business and a failure of fiscal responsibility.
The key to inclusivity is for the sport and leisure sector to place the right to be informed alongside the practical commercial value of the one fifth of the population that has a disability. Embedding inclusive practices within sport and physical activity requires what some may see as a counter-intuitive approach. Instead of treating disabled people as a sector of the community that needs help, the sport and leisure sector should, perhaps, treat disabled people as a market sector estimated to spend £80 billion per year [Source: DWP], a sector to be targeted using all the modern marketing technology and techniques at our disposal.
Being inclusive is about the numbers. If 20% of the catchment area for your facilities has a disability, how many disabled users and members should you have? And how many have you got? In the gap lies the key to greater inclusivity, better business, improved social return on investment and achieving fairness.
John Eady is chief executive at KKP
Find the Activity Alliance online at http://www.activityalliance.org.uk/
Find the Achieving Fairness strategy document via the Activity Alliance website at http://www.activityalliance.org.uk/about-us/our-work/strategy