Disabled people face a two-pronged health risk from the Covid-19 pandemic, campaigners have warned, with the immediate danger of the virus now compounded by a long-term threat to physical health caused by a drop-off in activity.
Sport England statistics suggest that only 23% of disabled people were able to complete 30 minutes of exercise five times a week in September, a drop of 3% on figures recorded during the first Covid lockdown in April.
Disabled people also account for almost two thirds of deaths from the virus more broadly, a double impact which necessitates a change in thinking on inclusion policies, according to the disabled advocacy group Activity Alliance.
The group’s chief executive, Barry Horne, said: “The thing that troubles us most is the extent to which people are not identifying how Covid is disproportionately hitting disabled people.
“You can see that two thirds of Covid deaths were from that group. There are different ways of presenting it, but [between the ages of nine and 64] for every one non-disabled woman who died from Covid, 11 disabled women died. From every non-disabled man that died, 6.5 disabled men died from Covid. That’s big.”
Horne believes the virus has also disrupted positive improvements in physical activity among disabled people and that that decline is only likely to continue following the new restrictions imposed by a second national lockdown.
“In tiered [local] restrictions there was an exemption for disabled people in terms of physical activity,” Horne said. “In the previous period the disabled people were allowed to be active indoors and there was an exemption whereby they were encouraged to do so. That’s gone in the current lockdown.
“There’s a level of understanding and acceptance that it’s the right thing to promote activity amongst disabled people, but there’s two big issues: one is explicitly understanding what inclusion for disabled people means but also this level of potential contraction of the available opportunities is what we’re really anxious about.”
Horne has called on the leisure industry and sports providers to put inclusion at the centre of all measures undertaken to enable the reopening of the sector when current lockdown measures are eased.
“I don’t yet think the sector has an understanding of how they operate when we come out the other side, which is a lot of what this conversation is about,” Horne says. “It’s about thinking differently in a way that gives more confidence to people so that when they start returning to gyms, disabled people are just as likely to be a part of that.
“If we have to come back to this conversation in five years, where we come back but there’s not enough space for this inclusion stuff it will be almost impossible to regain the progress we made. Our point is: don’t do a thing that isn’t inclusion proof, spend every penny in a way that works.”
Horne acknowledges that commercial pressures, with many leisure providers already facing an uncertain future, could push inclusion further down the agenda. It is down to government to intervene, he says, and make inclusion a central condition of any future public funding for the sector.
“In reality, when you’ve got the manager of a facility, their first priority is how they make the finances stack up so we can open the door. Is that guidance about inclusive practice fully there?
“Our question to the government is: if you think this is a good thing, why aren’t you requiring it of people? If you’re going to spend significant public money why would you allow people to receive it if they were only going to use it for those members in society who either weren’t on low incomes, weren’t BAME and weren’t disabled? Why wouldn’t you actually expect them to skew their funding to redress that imbalance?”