Many of Britain's gyms, leisure centers 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 in 2012.
Although most gyms provided disabled parking spaces, for example, many of the bays are not wide enough to enable a wheelchair to be unpacked from a car. Although a cursory attempt has been made at making the building accessible to disabled and wheelchair users, little thought has been put into an independent wheelchair user gaining access through heavy (non-automatic) doors – with internal doors also proving to be difficult to manoeuver through with ease.
Many gyms have made the minimum changes to adhere to the law – to provide basic access, but have not embraced the full spirit of the law which is to encourage, involve and promote fitness to anyone regardless of their ability.
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 disabled sport equipment and nearly half lacked staff trained in disability awareness.
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.
This situation is solvable and the Government has encouraged local authorities and gym owners to become accredited as IFI (Inclusive Fitness Initiative) and literally open their doors to all.
IFI is a national scheme whereby fitness suites are awarded grants to increase the range of equipment (such as disabled bikes) that they can offer that is ‘user-friendly’ to disabled people. Staff will receive disability equality training and the fitness instructors are further trained in working with disabled.
The legacy that was promised to inspire a generation must surely be questioned if a proportion of the population who may want to take up exercise in a gym can’t even get in the building!
There is the potential to involve many disabled people in sports. Offering the ability to participate in sports is not a favour due to disabled people, but a responsibility of all local councils. To provide disabled sport equipment, along with adequate staff training should be the aim for every major leisure centre in the country.
*Survey was carried out by Leonard Cheshire Disability
Author: Kathleen Mansour