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Accessibility: Is your centre sending the right message to people with disabilities?

In the second of this three part series on fitness for people with disabilities, we explore common marketing mistakes and how, with just a few tweaks, operators could more accurately target guests with physical challenges and long-term health conditions

Published in Sports Management 2018 issue 3
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Operators should ensure disabled people know they will be welcomed and that staff will know how to support them / © shutterstock/samba
Operators should ensure disabled people know they will be welcomed and that staff will know how to support them/ © shutterstock/samba

The population of people with disabilities presents a big opportunity. As we covered in the last issue, almost 14 million people in the UK – that’s not far off one in five of the entire population – have a physical impairment or long-term health condition, and nearly half of these are physically inactive. What’s more, seven in ten disabled people want to be more active, but feel facilities aren’t doing enough to highlight what’s on offer for them. And with annual spending power of £212 billion, disabled people and their families are also valued consumers.

What’s the situation with concessions?
Ian Warren is head of health and safety at specialist quality management company Right Directions, which delivers both Sport England’s quality assurance and continuing development programme, Quest, and the Inclusive Fitness Initiative’s IFI Mark accreditation. He says: “Some people always equate disability with poverty and assume customers with disabilities would visit under a concessional or free membership.

“Sometimes this is the case, and operators do a wonderful job of supporting people in these circumstances, but often disabled people are prepared to pay to be members, and once operators realise this is the case, they’re more likely to view them as a market.”

Dawn Hughes is national partnerships advisor for Activity Alliance (previously the English Federation of Disability Sport). The charity has been supporting facilities to be more welcoming and accessible to disabled people for more than 10 years through its IFI Mark. “It’s a large community, where almost 50 per cent of people are in work,” she agrees. “But people in employment may not qualify for concession schemes, so it’s a strong market to invest in.”

Where do I start?
Six in 10 disabled people claim either a lack of activities or not knowing about the opportunities open to them is a barrier. And with a simple online search for local leisure activities it’s not hard to see why.

Caroline Constantine, managing director of Right Directions and Quest’s operations director explains. “Part of the problem is that the images used in marketing all depict young, very fit members. It’s a real problem we have as a sector. Even if your centre is accessible, your staff are all appropriately trained and your equipment is inclusive, if you market your centre based on this imagery, most of the general public will assume it’s not for them. Disabled people may too wonder if they will stand out, be stared at if staff will know how to help or whether they can access equipment. This can be enough to stop them trying.”

“On the flip side, imagery can be part of the solution and can play an integral role in making your facilities more inclusive – very quickly and easily changing people’s perceptions of your organisation.”

But it’s not just the marketing imagery, says Hughes. “If people see disabled staff working in your facility they will immediately know it must be accessible. You don’t have to say any more. They will know staff are approachable too. A lot of this is about trust. Sometimes word of mouth is enough; from another member with an impairment for instance. You can say ‘we welcome disabled people’ in your marketing, but ultimately they need trust before they make that move.”

Last year, the Activity Alliance teamed up with Right Directions to deliver its IFI Mark accreditation. Under the partnership, Right Directions facilitates the IFI award either standalone or for free, as part of Quest.

“Unless operators step out of their comfort zone and test how they’re performing for disabled guests, how will they improve?” says Warren, who travels the country assessing leisure centres for their IFI Mark accreditation. “The IFI module is a great opportunity for operators to focus their attention on the key criteria, so they realise that having a hoist in the pool and disabled parking bays isn’t enough. Many centres are inadvertently excluding a large proportion of the community – many of whom are likely to benefit most from the facilities.”

Reach out
“We want disabled people to be saying, ‘that centre understands my needs’,” continues Warren, who advises approaching local disability and community groups such as Mencap, Scope, AgeUK, the Stroke Association and Mind to let them know what’s on offer and that they are all welcome. “Quite often I assess fantastic facilities that have everything in place to welcome disabled guests but it’s nowhere to be seen on their marketing or their websites. They’re not reaching out to local community groups to tell them what’s available for their members, either. It’s a simple but effective marketing activity!”

Positive first experience
Reaching out to local groups and health teams is a key priority for Basildon Sporting Village’s Sport for Confidence programme, which was started by Occupational Therapist Lyndsey Barrett three years ago.

The programme, which has been widely celebrated in the local press, recently won the Inclusion and Disability award at ukactive’s Active Uprising Awards and Barrett has also received recognition, including a Merit award from the Royal College of Occupational Therapists and an Innovation award. Currently engaging with around 400 participants across five Essex leisure centres each week, Sport for Confidence enables disabled and non-disabled people to get involved in sport together and offers sessions that have been developed in consultation with customers, including swimming, boccia, trampolining, gymnastics, athletics, fencing, cricket and curling.

“I set up the programme after working in the NHS for 18 years, as I saw the benefits sport and physical activity could have as part of the assessment and intervention process,” says Barrett, who is based at Basildon Sporting Village two days a week. “As a health professional working in the centre I can make adjustments to the environment to make sure it’s inclusive and creates a positive first experience.

“We don’t refer to our programme as disability sport, we talk about being physically active and use the term inclusive, so reaching people with disabilities can be difficult. One of first things I did was form relationships with local health teams that are already providing a service to these hard-to-reach people, such as residential homes and day centres; forming links with everyone involved on the ground to let them know we exist.”

Barrett says it’s now the norm to find more people in the centre’s café with diverse backgrounds and a variety of support needs than without and celebrates the great atmosphere and relationship between staff and customers. She continues: “What I love about the team at Basildon Sporting Village is that they were brave enough to have me there in the first place and believed me when I said I could transform how disabled people access a centre. It’s all about changing the culture.

“They’re customers not patients. If you join via a GP referral scheme you come with the patient label. But what one person needs is different to the next, so rather than everyone having to fit into one box, we view everyone as unique. In just one session I can see 40 people and at least half don’t call themselves disabled. If they don’t view themselves as disabled I’m certainly not going to place that label on them.”

Get inclusive!

A number of useful resources are available on
The Activity Alliance website, including its Inclusive Communications Guide and Engaging Disabled People resource, which can be found in the resources section:

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