It is easy to forget that in a world before COVID there were already significant barriers for people with disabilities and chronic illness who wanted to take part in physical activity. Some of these barriers were physical in nature, such as inaccessible facilities, difficulties in accessing transport and the costs of specialist equipment. There were also more social and cultural barriers for example stereotypes around disability, lack of awareness and understanding of how to cater for different needs.
And then, in March 2020, the pandemic hit the UK…
Letters began flying through letter boxes, outlining people with disabilities’ medical vulnerabilities and telling them that it would not be safe for them to leave the house. At the same time, others, who were not declared ‘vulnerable’ by the government, felt somewhat forgotten, apprehensive about accessing local facilities. Many made their own decision to shield, based on the data and messaging provided by the Government on a daily basis.
I can remember a list being provided which outlined the disabilities and conditions that were deemed to be ‘high risk’. Although I did not receive a shielding letter, my disability came near the top of this list, meaning that I made the decision to isolate myself for a number of months. I no longer felt safe accessing the gym, swimming pool, or even walking my dogs, which were all a huge part of my life. My experience is similar to thousands across the country.
In the summer of 2020, we were being encouraged to exercise outdoors if we were not shielding. However, this came with its own unique challenges. Footpaths and cycleways where I was previously able to exercise freely, were mobbed with friends and families taking the opportunity to catch up outdoors. Arguably, those who were use the grass instead chose the tarmacked areas that were essential to me as a wheelchair user. As a wheelchair rugby player with Paralympic ambitions, I started training in a community centre car park near my house. The carpark was sloped, gravelly and often littered with glass and other debris. This was my only option as I had to get some time in my rugby chair.
Whilst non-disabled friends found the transition to outdoor training relatively smooth, this was not my experience. Both through my personal training and my involvement in Dundee Dragons – a wheelchair sports club for children and adults with mixed disabilities – I witnessed some significant challenges. Our expensive equipment is designed for indoor use. Pushing our bespoke sports chairs outdoors was not only difficult, but damaging. The closure of public toilets was noticed by all, but meant that we had to significantly shorten our session time with anxieties around being ‘caught short’ being a huge deterrent for many members. Equally, the weather conditions and outdoor temperature, especially living in Scotland, meant last minute cancellations on many occasions. Where non-disabled sports teams could ‘power through’ and shrug off the rain and freezing temperatures, that is simply not safe for many people whose conditions and vulnerabilities massively effect our ability to be able to regulate body temperature.
I play for the only Wheelchair Rugby team in Scotland and whilst English teams had been given the go-ahead to take training back indoors, we were still unable to meet, putting us at an obvious disadvantage. When we were able to train indoors, the guidelines were different between children and adults, which made session structure really difficult and often felt unfair. The negative effects of Government guidelines were felt throughout the disabled community not only in the sporting environment. Individuals with a hearing impairment, reliant on lip reading, were now isolated from conversation due to mandatory face coverings. Those with visual impairments found navigating familiar surroundings now impossible due to ever changing layouts and one way systems.
So where are we now? In a place where Covid passports, social distancing, lateral flow tests and the constant disinfecting of equipment are the new norm. For Dundee Dragons, this means the volunteers on which we rely are allowed to return to our training sessions but must wear face coverings throughout. Participants of all ages can return to activity, but must adhere to guidelines (which constantly seem to change), after taking a lateral flow test of course. In terms of elite sport, I’ve lost track of who amongst my team and coaches are isolating. I have had COVID twice myself, the second bout took me 12 weeks to recover from, despite being ‘double vaxxed’. I’m hopeful that this pandemic has highlighted both the physical and social barriers to sport and physical activity for people with disabilities which previously have gone unnoticed.