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Accessibility: Welcoming disabled guests into leisure centres

Twenty million people in the UK have a long term disability or illness. Nearly half of these people are physically inactive. In the first of this three part series, we explore what operators could be doing to welcome disabled guests

Published in Sports Management 2018 issue 2
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PTs should have the knowledge to adapt exercises for their clients needs / © inclusive fitness initiative
PTs should have the knowledge to adapt exercises for their clients needs/ © inclusive fitness initiative

Some people have a mental health condition they aren’t comfortable talking about,” says Dawn Hughes, national partnerships advisor for Activity Alliance, which has been supporting sport and leisure facilities to be more welcoming and accessible to disabled people for more than 10 years through its Inclusive Fitness Initiative ‘IFI Mark’ scheme.

“Many more people classify their disability as simply ‘getting old’. So it’s likely the number that actually declare themselves as having a disability massively underestimates the true figures.

“What’s more, we know that 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.”

But that’s not the only issue according to Caroline Constantine, managing director of specialist quality management company, Right Directions, which delivers the IFI Mark accreditation. “Psychological barriers play the biggest role in preventing disabled people from taking part in sport. Their perception of their own abilities matters, as well as others’ opinions on whether the activity suits them. So the industry has a lot of work to do to break down these barriers. Not only in how they prepare their facilities, but most significantly around how their staff interact with disabled visitors.”

That’s why, last year, Activity Alliance teamed up with Right Directions to deliver its IFI Mark accreditation. Under the partnership, Right Directions facilitates the IFI award either on its own or as part of Sport England’s quality assurance and continuing development programme, Quest.

“The partnership is a win-win for everyone involved,” says Constantine. “Operators taking part in Quest no longer have to pay for a separate award to demonstrate their inclusive credentials, while Activity Alliance can reach and support a wider range of facilities and organisations that want to include disabled people more effectively.”

Making the change
Key themes highlighted within the Quest module look at how you ensure your workforce is equipped to deliver inclusive services to disabled customers. Whether workforce diversity and development is driven by customer needs and local priorities and whether inclusion and diversity is proactively reflected in the recruitment and selection of the workforce across all levels. Elements such as venue and equipment accessibility and the measurement of the impact and outcomes for disabled visitors are also covered.

“It’s all very well having an accessible entrance and a lift, but does your organisation have a totally inclusive ethos?” says Hughes. “Operators need to take a whole organisation approach, from the boardroom to shop floor, so that when making decisions they are not just ticking boxes, but have inclusion at the heart of their thinking.”

Inclusive recruitment is one element. What messages do you give to people who are thinking about joining your company? Is it easy for a disabled person to see they’re welcome to apply for a position?

“Having a workforce diversity plan is a good start,” says Constantine. “Very often it’s not that operators don’t support diversity, they just don’t have a plan or a systematic approach. In fact, they may already be employing staff with disabilities or long term health conditions they’ve not been informed of.”

The Department for Work and Pensions’ Disability Confident scheme recognises employers who aim to employ and retain those with disabilities or health conditions, providing a reasonable level of support, assistance and adjustment where necessary to help them get the most out of their time as an employee.

Access all areas
But being equipped to deliver inclusive services isn’t just about the equipment, and employing a diverse workforce doesn’t guarantee your staff are fully prepared to meet and greet disabled guests or that they know how to engage with them.

“Only 5 per cent of people choose the word ‘confident’ as a top three term to describe how they feel when they meet a disabled person,” says Hughes. “It’s not that surprising, as many won’t knowingly have had day-to-day contact with anyone that has a disability or life-limiting illness.”

Kevin Wright is manager of [EN]GAGE, Edinburgh Napier University’s sports and fitness facilities, which undertook IFI Mark accreditation as part of its Quest assessment, achieving the Excellent banding in the IFI module. His aim is to ensure their facilities are accessible in the broadest sense of the word, whether from an illness, disability or gender point of view.

Wright believes the answer lies in talking to people rather than making assumptions about what a person can and cannot do. “Treat them as you would anyone else, with dignity and respect. Don’t wrap them in cotton wool or walk on eggshells as they’ll see you’re uncomfortable. When we ask our customers what’s the best thing about [EN]GAGE they consistently say it’s the staff, because they don’t assume, they talk to them.”

Hughes suggests all staff should receive disability inclusion training, regardless of role, so that guests always feel comfortable and supported. This means fitness instructors, personal trainers and sports coaches should all be able to adapt exercises to cater for a member with a disability. Front of house should know what’s available and whether classes are accessible. Maintenance staff should also have training, to ensure any changes they are making to the building are appropriate.

“Once your staff are ready to welcome disabled visitors it’s time to make sure your facilities are ready too,” says Ian Warren, a IFI Quest assessor and head of health and safety at Right Directions. “One aspect of the IFI Quest module is about venue accessibility. Can you get in the door? What about the changing rooms and toilets? How do you deal with fire evacuations and are guide dogs welcome?

“Great, so you have a hearing loop, but do the staff know how to work it? You want people to put on overshoes poolside, but have you provided benches for people that can’t bend down? We’re actually disabling many people by not considering these things and inadvertently excluding a large proportion of the community, many of whom would benefit most from the services.”

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