In this episode, I speak with Adam Blaze, CEO of Activity Alliance, the leading voice for disabled people in sport and activity in England. We discuss the role of the Activity Alliance in supporting disabled people to be active. We consider the policy challenges and opportunities facing the Activity Alliance. We then assess disabled people's current physical activity and sport participation. Finally, we consider whether it's possible there will ever be parity in sport participation between disabled and non-disabled people.
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Speaker: Dr Christopher Brown (Presenter – University of Hertfordshire, UK)
Speaker: Adam Blaze (Participant – CEO, Activity Alliance, UK)
[00:00:30] Dr Christopher Brown: Hi Listeners. Great news! Disability Support Info has been shortlisted for the Best Equality and Social Impact Award in the Sports Podcast awards. To show your support for the podcast, go to sportspodcastgroup.com and then click on the awards dropdown menu and then vote. Once there, navigate to the Best Equality and Social Impact podcast category to cast you a vote for Disability Sport Info.
To vote, you need to be logged in or create an account. Creating an account is easy and takes only a few minutes. Voting ends on the 6th of April 2023, so please do get your vote in. I've included the link to the vote in the episode description. Thank you for supporting the podcast. Now onto the episode and my chat with Adam Blaze of the Activity Alliance. Enjoy!
Hello, Listener. Welcome to another episode of the Disability Sport Info Show. Today, we are fortunate to be joined by Adam Blaze, CEO of the Activity Alliance, the leading voice for disabled people in sport and activity in England. The focus of this episode will be to understand the role of the Activity Alliance in more detail, the policy environment, and the general state of play for disabled people's sport participation and physical activity.
Adam, thank you for joining me today. Congratulations on your recent appointment as CEO of Activity Alliance. I know you've been there since January and it's been a bit of a whirlwind so far, but it'd be great if you could just reflect on your first few months in the role and also explain to listeners what the Activity Alliance is and the role it plays for disabled people in sport and physical activity.
[00:01:55] Adam Blaze: Brilliant, thank you. And thank you for inviting me on today, really appreciate it. As you said, nearly three months into the role, which has been great. So it's been a brilliant opportunity for me to pick up this role and begin to work with colleagues in Activity Alliance and work with partners and organisations across sport and disability.
So I've just started to get my head around who we are and what we’re doing. I had a good understanding of Activity Alliance from the previous role that I was in when I was working at Sport England. So worked along Activity Alliance, probably for 15 years, when I was at Sport England. And, actually, before I joined Sport England, I was at Activity Alliance when they were known as English Federation of Disability Sport, so I have a good understanding of the organisation and who they are and what they do. Or at least I thought I did. What I found is that there's loads of things going on. There's lots of things that we are doing, really good pieces of work. And as you said, our role is as the leading voice for disabled people in sport and activity.
So we're a national charity. We're an organisation that is solely focused on disabled people’s sport and activity. What we’re trying to do, and you can read this on the website, we talk about achieving fairness. That's the concept of our current strategy. But what that means is we're trying to change the landscape and the opportunities that exist in sport and physical activity because, at the moment, there is inherent unfairness and inequalities within the system within sport and physical activity.
So if you are disabled, your opportunities to take part in sport and physical activity or be involved at any level in sport and physical activity: you’re way behind where your non-disabled peers, family and friends may be, in terms of the access of opportunities and the ability to get active, and the ability to work in sport and activity.
So our role is to try and change that. We are completely focused on trying to create a fairer system, a fairer structure, trying to ensure that disabled people, in the longer term, are no longer less likely to be active or more likely to be inactive in doing no type of sport and physical activity. That is fundamentally what we're focused on trying to change this.
A key focus for us is that no one organisation can do this on their own. That's partly why we’re called Activity Alliance. We're an alliance of organisations. We're a membership organisation. We can't go out and try and create the change that is needed on our own. So we are focused on working with a number of organisations from across sport, and a number of organisations that are national disability charities or local disability organisations, user led organisations.
So the way that we set up and how we work is to work in partnership with as many organisations as we can, reflecting the resource and the people that we have available to try and create the change. So that's where our focus is organisationally, and that's where we are looking to work moving forward.
And that's the thing that I've found early on in my role is that it's key for us to work in partnership with organisations to try and achieve what we want to achieve, but what many organisations do as well.
[00:05:02] Dr Christopher Brown: And how would you assess that partnership working? As a charity, you're obviously constrained by resources and finance, and I believe you get some funding from Sport England to do some of your work.
So how does the Activity Alliance get their voice heard in the policy space and how is that partnership, that collaboration, going so far, do you think?
[00:05:21] Adam Blaze: So let me pick up on the partnership working first and then I'll come back to the policy piece.
But the partnership working, how we try and do this is to try and establish with other organisations where we've got shared objectives and shared priorities. As I said earlier, there's a number of people and organisations that exist in the space of sport and physical activity for disabled people, and there's a whole raft of other organisations that they're delivering sport and physical activity for everyone.
We really try and focus our resource and our time on those partners where we've got shared objectives with. Sometimes that's in sport. So, some of our members as an alliance, are the national disability sports organisations. We work really closely with those organisations. Organisations like British Blind Sport and UK Deaf Sport, LimbPower, WheelPower, Special Olympics, CP Sport. I better name them all now that I’ve started. Dwarf Sports Association. These are key partners for us. These are organisations that we have to work alongside because we are that overarching leading national voice for disabled people in sport and activity. And these are organisations that have real expertise and real reach and real understanding about people that are trying to get active in sport and physical activity.
So we work alongside them to ensure that everyone can get access to sport and physical activity. So our partnership working is done in that way. It's not always in sport. So we are developing partnerships with organisations like Disability Rights UK and understanding actually what specialism and expertise can they bring to the overarching aims that we've got of creating fairness, and what do we bring and how can we work together.
Because over the last few years, they've begun to do a lot of brilliant work in sport and activity with their Get Yourself Active programme. We can work alongside them and we can add to what they do and they can add to what we do. And actually we have way more impact working in partnership. So that's the key thing for us.
We're not trying to do this on our own. We're also not trying to control everything. So actually there's things that other people do that we don't need to go anywhere near because they're doing it brilliantly. But it's really important that we each have an understanding around what everyone's trying to do and work together.
In the past, I think one of the challenges has been that everyone's aiming for the same thing, but there's been elements of competition or a lack of understanding about who's actually doing what. And it's meant we haven't collectively made the best use of resource. So from a partnership perspective, that's where we're focused.
From a policy side, that's a really interesting question because this is a bigger focus for us now than it's ever been. So since I've come in and, to be fair, we already we're beginning to look in this space, particularly given our last investment from Sport England that we’re nearly a year through.
It's the first time we've had such a focus on the sport and physical activity policy space. It's really important. It's really, really important. So where I've done work over the past few years in this space, we try and now bring that to Activity Alliance.
A lot of the things that are causing people not to get active in sport and physical activity aren't necessarily always linked to sport and physical activity. So if we think about things like the benefit system and the fear that people have at being active, there's a policy problem there. If we think of the ability of someone to get to a location because our transport infrastructure is so inaccessible and not inclusive.
There's things that we really need to be in influencing that are policy-based, and we now have a real focus on that. So if I think about things we’re doing at the moment, we're talking to a variety of government departments about their existing policies. We've had a couple of our colleagues last month go down to London to begin to look at some of the work on the transport infrastructure, and how we create a way more accessible transport infrastructure that can work for everybody. We're talking to the relevant government departments around the benefit system. We had a piece of research, it's probably four or five years old now called the Activity Trap that we've still been tracking in terms of some of those questions.
So we've got a whole wealth of data that show that there are real issues when it comes to people deciding not to get active because they're worried about the financial impact, if they're caught getting active on the benefits that they're currently in receipt of. That's a massive challenge. If on one hand we've got a government that's creating a system to try and help people in terms of benefits and financial support and get back into work, and on the other hand we've got a sports strategy that says we want everyone to be active, but the two don't align, we've gotta fix that.
So we absolutely believe we can get into that space with our insight and our understanding. And hopefully begin to change some of those policies because that's when we'll start to get a greater shift than we've had before in terms of helping people get active. As I said that, that's really important focus for us.
Again, as was the question you asked earlier, this isn't for us to do on our own. We've now begun to create relationships with other organisations across sport that operate in this space. Your organisations like UK Active and Sport England and UK Sport and the Sport Recreation Alliance, all of whom have policy teams.
We need to work together and we need to have a single voice that is amplified and gets listened to. And actually there's been evidence of that working over the past few months. So we need to keep pushing on that. But we also need to keep doing the same thing with the bigger disability charities. Your organisations like Disability Rights UK, Sense, and Scope, and others that have a wealth of experience in terms of trying to impact and influence policy and change in policy, our ability to work with them is gonna be critical.
[00:11:05] Dr Christopher Brown: And you mentioned earlier about there's a number of different organisations operating in the space, and I know there's been an academic article about six, eight years ago, which said that the provision of disability sport, and this was looking across Europe, but also applied to the UK, was fragmented and cumbersome.
Do you think that's still the case?
[00:11:23] Adam Blaze: I think we've moved on from fragmented and cumbersome, but there's still a lot of work to do. So I think where there have been improvements is there is now a want amongst organisations to work together. So the fragmented element has come because people are trying to do their things, which is right and is good, but unless we can join some of that up, which again is our role as an alliance to try and facilitate relationships and aid understanding around what people are doing. I think we are getting better at that as a whole, as everyone that's in this space. There's way more that can be done.
I think there's an appetite now to work together more. We've moved away from that competition element where I think things were set up where people are almost looking to compete against each other, or show that they're things are the best, or provide services that almost we don't go to that bit over there, come and work with us. I think we’re past that now. We understand that actually the most important thing is to understand the people we're trying to influence. And what they want. And design services that work for the people who want to get more active or have never been able to get active. So I think cumbersome and fragmented, we've moved on from that.
But there's a long way to go to get this right.
[00:12:37] Dr Christopher Brown: You could argue the reason it was fragmented was because mainstream organisations didn't fulfil their remit, right? Because that's why these organisations, separate organisations had to exist because it wasn't being provided to the full extent. That's probably why you had National Disability Sport Organisations, yourselves, other organisations, et cetera.
So how, because you don't provide funding to organisations like NGBs, national governing bodies. How can you hold their feet to the fire and make sure they actually are putting work in this space? How can you get your voice really heard that way?
[00:13:09] Adam Blaze: Yeah, it's a really good question. And there's not a single answer. There's not one solution.
So it isn't just about us working alongside funders like Sport England and UK Sport and others and saying, the way we solve this problem is by you putting conditions in contracts to say, you must do this, because we know that alone doesn't work. And we also know the flip side of that is you can't try and convince people solely from the good of their heart to say, you must deliver for everyone. Neither of those things work.
I wish one of them did because it would make life a lot easier. Just take this off the shelf, give it to people and it'll work. So what we have to do is we have to really understand the organisations that are delivering sport and physical activity, and understand how we can support them to be better.
And there'll be a variety of different things for that. So for some organisations that are delivering sport and physical activity, and this has been the case with national governing bodies, some national governing bodies. They're really keen and want to deliver to everyone. They really want to provide a better service when it comes to disabled people that are looking to play their sport, but they haven't got the expertise or the understanding as to how to do that.
So that's where we can come in. That's where we can come in and help them in terms of, well, what type of delivery are they offering? What does it look like? Helping them understand what disabled people want, helping them understand how to talk directly to disabled people that are in their sport or want to play their sport.
Providing expertise and opportunities around things like marketing and communications. How do you effectively market to disabled people? How do you communicate with them? How do you reach people? Who are the people that need to recommend your activity for? Because we know, from our insight, there's no point, even us or a national governing body going to many inactive disabled people cause they're just not gonna know who they are.
And actually it's the trusted voice of healthcare professionals or organisations that they're currently getting support from that will help. So this is where we can help organisations with that expertise. But there's other types of organisations that, if we're being brutally honest, we could help them understand that they've got a massive market of people that they're not delivering to.
They've got a customer consumer base that their profits are having no impact on. These people aren't spending, we've got people that aren't spending money in their facilities or their opportunities because they're just not accessible. So there's times where we'll sit down with organisations like this, particularly sort of private sector organisations, and talk about our insight that say if there's all these consumers out here that you’re missing, and this is how you reach them, and this is the type of membership or offer that you might need to put in place to attract people in.
So there's a variety of answers, but again, I keep going back to it. This is about working in collaboration. So this will be us with the deliverers of sport. It'll be us working alongside the funders. It'll be us working directly with, and indirectly with, some of our partners, but also disabled people. For us, the major focus at the moment, and this is beginning to grow across both sport and, well, not disability because the whole concept was born out the disability sector, but this idea of co-production. And this idea of empowering the people that you're trying to deliver to so they have a real say, a real say in the services that are provided.
That's really important for us and that's really important for us to help others understand that. We've got to go on a journey to aid our understanding and grasp of the concept of co-production. But we're in a really good place. But again, we're working with others on that, but making sure that the deliverers of sport really understand the importance of this is gonna be critical.
[00:16:48] Dr Christopher Brown: Nothing about us without us. That's a phrase that is used and co-production obviously is very important. And obviously if you don't know what your consumer market wants, then how you're gonna deliver to them, right? And I suppose you guys have a tricky line to tread in terms of you are obviously a strategic organisation with knowledge production and insight, but organisations that don't have that knowledge perhaps are sometimes afraid to enter this space because they don't know what they're doing, and then they don't necessarily be talked down to from, you know, an organisation saying, this is what you've been doing, and it’s wrong, and this is what you should do. So how do you strike that balance between saying it's okay that you don't necessarily know as much at the moment. This is how we can help without being too pushy, without being too forward. How do you guys do that?
[00:17:33] Adam Blaze: Yeah, that's a really good question and a really good point because this fear and lack of confidence comes through in a number of places when we're trying to work with organisations to evolve and change their delivery. And it can come through in people never having moved on anything because they're worried about something as simple as language.
They're worried about saying the wrong thing or offending someone. So instead of running the risk of saying the wrong thing, they just don't say anything. And you're right. There is a lack of insight and understanding of that insight in some spaces, but that's where we can come in and help because we've got some of that.
And actually that's about us producing things that are useful. So our research reports and the things that we put out on an annual basis, and around particular topics, are done in the way that people can use without feeling like they're being talked down to or told off. It's actually more around things that people need to consider.
They're really focused on practical use. So the things that we put out there should be able to be translated into changing what happens on the ground, or in the delivery, or in the design of services. So we set them up in that way so they can be used like that. And again, this comes back to the developing relationships piece.
We don't develop any relationship on the back of you are absolutely rubbish. This is not good enough. Change it. It's more around. But that's happened before across sport and physical activity, and it doesn't work where you try and beat someone with that stick and it goes back to the other side: the carrot and stick approach is far too simple for this.
It's more around we can help you. We can really help you and it's understanding where those organisations are at, so those that have got an appetite to change but recognize themselves that they've got a problem, that's brilliant because we can come in and fix it. There’s other times where we have to demonstrate and show people their delivery isn't quite where it's up to, if you look at a comparison in one sport to another, as an example in terms of proportion of people playing, but it's about that relationship building and making sure that we're all on the same team. Everyone wants the same thing. If we're looking at sport and physical activity, everyone wants as many people as possible to be active and for all those who want to be active, to be able to do so in a way that they so choose.
[00:19:52] Dr Christopher Brown: It'd be remiss of me to not mention this as an academic, but how do you assess academics role in terms of, they produce knowledge, but sometimes you could argue it's a little bit privileged because it's for journals and it's written in a way that is perhaps not comprehensible to the everyday person. So how do you guys utilise academic knowledge, and what role do academics have in helping to get this partnership and this knowledge production ongoing?
[00:20:20] Adam Blaze: So I think academics have a key role. You might think I've gotta say that because of who I'm talking to.
[00:20:27] Dr Christopher Brown: Well, it's nice that you do, Adam. Yeah. It's nice that you do.
[00:20:28] Adam Blaze: But that isn’t the reason why. I do think they have a key role, and I actually think, particularly over the last two to three years, we’re beginning to see a shift in the engagement between academics and practitioners and deliverers and administrators in sport and physical activity.
So I think, in the past, there's been a slight tension where deliverers practitioners, organisers of sport, haven't necessarily seen the value in the academic work, or they see it as being too focused on one thing that isn't necessarily useful for them to take out and deliver more widely, and scale what's coming out of that.
I think there's been a shift, and I think if I look at, like even you doing this podcast or some of the work that Brett Smith has done in partnership with others and his work on the CMO guidelines and his partnership with Disability Rights UK. And there's numerous people now and pockets of academics around the country that are really focusing in on its space.
The next phase of that is to really align and bring together, the different types of people that are working. So how do academics, how do the practitioners, deliverers or administrators of sport, really work alongside academics to let them know what is useful, and what are the missing bits and vice versa?
How do academics feed things back in and say, look, this is the reality of what we are finding, because it's the academics that have significant expertise when it comes to research. And usable research. And if we can get to the point where we're not just having things within journals that are focused on the academic sector and the academic environment, but they're then being used, that'll take us forward again.
But I think we are close to getting to that point than we've ever been before because of the better understanding that exists on both sides.
[00:22:12] Dr Christopher Brown: Yeah, hopefully that continues. Obviously, that's the purpose of this podcast to try and broaden academic knowledge. But yeah, hopefully we get more of a closer working relationship going forward.
So organisations who are working in the space, it's equality, diversity and inclusion piece. So all organisations nowadays pretty much want to tick off that EDI box. Now, you're not the only protected characteristic, of course. There's gender, sexuality, race, et cetera. So how do you think disability is viewed compared to other protected characteristics in sport policy?
Is there an equality there, do you think?
[00:22:46] Adam Blaze: Yeah, that is, that's it's not, I wouldn't say it's a contentious question. It's an emotive question. I think organisations that deliver sport are now beginning to understand equality, diversity, inclusion in a way that they haven't before. I think they're beginning to understand that labelling a person with a single label isn't helpful. Because, actually, to understand what's needed, you need to understand the person, and you need to understand what drives the decisions that they make around sport and physical activity.
Because it might be based on their impairment, it might be based on their gender, it might be based on their age. There's a whole load of things that come into that. We've moved away from that simple understanding. Where there becomes a risk is that there's a focus on one thing at a time, which I think is unhelpful.
Sport and physical activity has a serious challenge at all levels when it comes to racism and people taking part in sport or people working in sport. And that's an issue. And we can go back to the time around the Euro 2020 finals, and what happened at that final and coming out of that and what happened in society, both in America and here.
That's a massive challenge that sport, physical activity needs to solve. We can't take the viewpoint, and sports organisations and sports policy makers can't take the viewpoint of, that's the focus. We're gonna fix this. And then once we fix that, we'll go into something else. We need to understand the whole. And we need to understand where we've got challenges and we need to make use of some of the economies of scale that could exist.
Some of the ways that partner organisations could work together, because there is a risk that people get skewed by the thing that has the most profile at a moment in time, and that can change at any moment. That can change from one thing to another. It's really important to understand, going back to your question, if we're talking about protected characteristics, it's really important to understand them as a whole, and understand what needs to happen in sport and physical activity, and not just try and pick off one characteristic and solve that, because that's really limiting.
It's really limiting and the impact you can have and the changes that need to be made across the board.
[00:25:03] Dr Christopher Brown: Obviously you work in this space, so I'll be interested to see your view, but do you think race, sexuality, gender, they're more trendy, more sexy than disability?
[00:25:13] Adam Blaze: I wouldn't like to say whether they're more sexy or not.
[00:25:17] Dr Christopher Brown: Yeah. That probably could be phrased differently.
[00:25:19] Adam Blaze: There's an element that they're probably more understood or they're more visible. The issues around race and the issues around gender I think are better understood and are more visible if you look across the board in sport and physical activity. That doesn't mean that there's less work or less impact happening in the disability work, but I think it's maybe less understood.
I think there’s societal challenges that come with that. I think if you are out and about and you're trying to park your car, you see a wheelchair user painted on the floor, same when you are walking past toilets or using those toilets, so there's not as great an understanding about what we mean when we talk about a disabled person, and the impairments and the long-term health conditions, and the people that would class themselves as being disabled. There's a lack of understanding there, and I think that's a problem. And this is outside of sport. I'm talking at a societal level. It's getting better. If I take the example of, let's talk about Strictly and how Strictly is beginning to look at this. And if we look over the past couple of years and the difference that is making, particularly when you've got a winner who's got a hearing impairment, that's been amazing.
And you pick up the stuff that this year there's likely to be a wheelchair user, which again, will be great, but then you also pick up the fact that doesn't go down well in some spaces. It’s just the BBC being woke, why are we doing this? It's not relevant. It's that real understanding that the census data for England and Wales came out earlier this month, 10.4 million people filled out the census and said that they were disabled.
That's a significant number of people across the country, and that's probably not well enough understood.
[00:27:09] Dr Christopher Brown: And also I think comes back to that perception of what we deem to be normal, what we deem to be ability. And obviously in the kind of academic speak, and also in practice, it's known as ableism. There's that kind of certain standards and that probably feeds into it, you know, we have a certain idea of what we think is acceptable, what is not acceptable, and trying to break down those barriers is tricky. It's tough, isn't it? But these kind of initiatives obviously will help.
[00:27:32] Adam Blaze: It is. And it will. be And again, this is really emotive and this is a really difficult topic to discuss, but you also have to look at the fact that some impairments are more palatable to certain people that are making decisions.
[00:27:46] Dr Christopher Brown: There's a hierarchy, isn't it? Probably. There's a hierarchy of acceptability.
[00:27:48] Adam Blaze: There really is, and we're trying to break that in terms of who we are going to look at and ambassadors and who we wanna put on platforms that we can begin to change that.
[00:28:00] Dr Christopher Brown: Okay. And also what you mentioned earlier, it was quite interesting.
It's really relevant, you know, the idea of intersectionality. So the idea that people have multiple characteristics, so yeah, people aren't just disabled or they're not just black or they're not just gay, they can be multiple things. But sometimes I think organisations maybe just view it as, like you said, separate boxes.
And try and treat it as an individual rather than actually acknowledging that, people are in different sectors, different streams of society, and you need to address the individual and the factors behind their circumstances, if you are going to actually try and get them involved in physical activity and sport.
[00:28:36] Adam Blaze: Yeah, absolutely. So if we go back to the focus that, quite rightly, there has been on race and racism, and sports gets better at engaging people and engaging communities and breaking down some of those challenges. But then doesn't deliver in an accessible environment. We're then saying, great, we've solved one problem, but we're only delivering to a certain cohort of people, because we are saying if we are looking at intersectionality and you are from a particular community but have a disability as well, well, we can't cater your disability but we can cater for the fact that your English might be your second language. That's not good enough. This is why we have to think about it as a collective and work together.
[00:29:21] Dr Christopher Brown: No, definitely. I think there's still a lot of work to be done on that particular space. And that's gonna take a little bit of time.
Okay, so let's focus on sport and physical activity. So we've gone from society and now we’re going back to our everyday job here.
As you know, the rates of physical activity and sport participation for disabled people has been relatively stable, but it's still significantly less than that of non-disabled people. And I know you've only just joined the organisation, but why is that the case and how can we solve that? That's obviously some big questions, but I want you to consider what are the main issues driving that?
Is there also, and there's a lot of questions here, is there also a difference between physical activity and sport? Because I know, as you said, English Federation of Disability Sport is now Activity Alliance. Is there a toxicity behind sport in trying to get people who are in inactive to be active? Now you've probably got about seven questions to answer there, so if you've got a chance to actually list them off and answer them, but generally, what is it that is preventing increasing in participation?
Easy question, right?
[00:30:24] Adam Blaze: There’s quite a lot in there. I’m gonna start with the data piece that you talked about and the pattern over a long period of time. The gap that existed between disabled people and non-disabled people stayed the same. If I go back to the advent of the Active People Survey as it initially was from when Sport England initially brought that out, there was a massive change around 2012.
Now, I completely agree with all the evidence, academic and otherwise, that shows that big events on their own don't make a difference in terms of long-term participation, just the event itself. But what happened around 2012 was that it really did make a difference in this country because it almost legitimised disabled people taking part in sport.
So the focus around the Paralympics, and I remember traveling down to the Paralympics most days, sometimes for work, sometimes personally to watch. And it sounds like a cliché or it sounds like it's made up, but genuinely on the train on the way there. And a lot of the conversations were around people being excited because they've missed out on tickets to the Olympics.
They hadn't gone to the park or they hadn't gone to particular events that were in other venues. On the way back, without fail, the conversations were always around the sport that they'd watched, and not even the fact that it was Paralympic sport, just that it was sport. I think across the board, there was a shift in the way that people thought about sports and disability.
Both people that were providing, but also disabled people themselves. So there was an initial uptick in terms of the number of people taking part in sport. The problem was, and that carried on for a period of time when more disabled people were getting active. The problem was the infrastructure in sport and physical activity wasn't ready for that.
There weren't enough accessible opportunities. There weren't enough people in the workforce who understood how to deliver effective and inclusive sessions. So that increase then decreased, and then plateaued off. So we didn't make the most of that opportunity. There was a change in terms of outlook and culture, but we didn't make the most of it.
And then the gap stayed the same for a period of time, but just before the pandemic, if you look at the couple of data points before the pandemic hit, the gap was beginning to close. Not dramatically, but there was a statistically significant change in that gap. And I think that was because a lot of work had been done on helping deliverers and people involved in sport and physical activity understand what needed to be done. And the workforce was better trained and there was more opportunities, and it was relevant. And disabled people had been asked what they wanted and there'd been a shift, and there'd been more investment from Sport England.
That was wiped out overnight. As soon as lockdowns and things came in and we know that it, there was a negatively disproportionate impact of the pandemic on disabled people compared to non-disabled people. The gains that we're beginning to come were just wiped out. We're not gonna start again, but we've gotta rebuild. And we've gotta learn the things that were happening before.
We've gotta change. We've gotta make sure that sport and physical activity comes back way more inclusively and way more open and accessible than it's been before, because there is evidence to show that can be done. There's definitely evidence to show that can be done, and we understand how we can help people do that.
So I think that's part of where we've been in terms of overall participation rates.
Your question around physical activity in sport. I don't think sport is toxic, but I think if you are trying, you have to understand where sport fits in and the different types of sport and where physical activity fits in.
There are some people that sport is the route to getting them more active. Or getting them active again. And that might be people that have been active in the past and are used to and understand and want a more formalised structural club environment or competitions. So sport works. But if you are trying to deliver sport as the first route of getting someone out of the house who hasn't been active for years, or what they've been doing since March 2020 is online activity every so often, don't try and sell them a sports club.
It's really understanding the role that physical activity can play. And when I say physical activity that's in its broadest sense from my perspective. So actually the route to getting someone out and doing something, it might be gardening. There's some great stuff that has been done by an organisation up in Yorkshire called Community Integrated Care. They're a social care organisation, do some amazing work. They've had some physical activity work that have built gardening into that work as a key thing. That's the route to getting people out and doing something, and then when you build that confidence, so when you build that health side up, then you can push them into something else.
So understanding physical activity in sport and the difference in all the relevant types of physical activity and types of sport, then we can begin to influence people's behaviour.
[00:35:34] Dr Christopher Brown: Yeah, so it's about choice, isn't it really? There are some people who are further along the kind of behaviour change journey and are more kind of invested and interested in sport and yeah, obviously sport could be an option for them, but those who maybe are far removed from sport or activity in general, then like you said, it's probably about opening up accessible routes into activity, which may not be anything to do with sport. Like you said, gardening, maybe going for a walk, whatever it might be. So yeah, I think it's about the choice, isn't it? And it's the option. So people have the ability to pick and choose.
[00:36:06] Adam Blaze: And that's when we'll know when things are better, is that, within reason, people can get active in the way that they so choose to.
So if they want to get active in this way, that option is available. Clearly within reason. If someone says, I want to get active by playing football on Wembley every Sunday, that's not realistic. But within reason. Because that's not there at the moment. People don't necessarily have the choice that they want. They have to make best of what's available sometimes, and that availability is really inaccessible.
[00:36:38] Dr Christopher Brown: And we know from just general consumer behaviour that, yes, even in like shopping, if you've got choice between different brands, different types of food, then obviously you can make more of an informed choice than if you are limited to one particular option.
[00:36:51] Adam Blaze: And this is where, again, coming back and talking to the consumer, and not even co-producing, but just consulting and potentially co-designing with people. And I know there's work that's happened in certain places where they've realised there were people that weren't going out for walks around towns or parks because there weren't enough benches. Like from their house into the town was a 20 minute walk, but there was nowhere to stop on the way.
So that made it impossible for them to do that. Whereas actually if you drop some benches in, or we sort the problem that we've got with public toilets, then it becomes more accessible for people.
[00:37:26] Dr Christopher Brown: Yeah, and this goes back to your previous point that it’s not just in isolation in terms of working on your own.
And it's not just sport, it's across different sectors of society, isn't it? Like you said, they're, they're talking about benches or access to transport or whatever it might be. It's not just a sporting sector for sure.
I'd like to move on just a brief focus on the current cost of living crisis, if I may. So you mentioned earlier about how some people might be fearful of being active in case they are deemed to be in what the media might characterize them as a ‘benefits scrounger’. So with the current cost of living crisis, how are Activity Alliance working with partners to safeguard access and availability of sport and physical activity?
And how big an impact do you think the cost of living crisis has had on physical activity and sport?
[00:38:09] Adam Blaze: I think it's having a big impact. The challenge of a pandemic, the like of which we've never really seen before, or at least in living memory we've never seen before. The impact of that is still there for many people. To then move into a cost of living crisis, that's the context of us trying to get more people active.
It's a real, when I say us, the collaboration of partners and organisations. It's really challenging. It's really challenging for the individual that might want to get active. It's really challenging for the providers because they're trying to survive and stay open and still offer services, and it's really challenging in areas over and above sport. But that doesn't mean we can just ignore it or accept that's the situation.
We absolutely have to work with people to try and change it. You might have seen we came together with a number of partners over the last few weeks to put our name to and campaign and put things out there to try and influence policy around support to leisure centres, swimming pools, gyms, around utility bill provision and support. Because those type of facilities were getting support, and then that was removed. Which is a real challenge because if you are a facility that's trying to heat a swimming pool, and your bills are three or four times more than they were a year ago, that's really difficult. So we worked together with a number of partners, and you might have seen that last week there was the announcement of some money from the budget to support leisure centres with swimming pools. Which is great. That's really needed. It's not enough. It's really needed. It's evidence of how we can work together with partners and organisations can come together to create change, but that isn't enough. And we need to keep pushing for things like that. But then we also need to think about what can we do differently?
One of the things that came out of the pandemic that was a positive, was that there was more provision than ever before that was online and digital. If I go back to that period in March, in April, 2020, when I was still working in the space of disability and sport and physical activity, I was getting a constant stream of communication from individuals that were saying to me, I've never had this much choice.
Because everything shut, everything had to go online. So disabled people that were potentially discriminated against because the online provision was way behind the physical in-person provision, they had numerous things they could do. And I'm not just talking Joe Wicks. Providers were putting things online that were accessible and often free to use. They don't have to stay free to use forever. I don't think that is the solution. But actually continuing some of the online provision so people who maybe can't get into a physical environment to do that or can't always do it because the majority of people who would call themselves disabled have more than one impairment.
And often one of the impairments is around long-term pain. And long-term pain is not controllable all the time, and it's not predictable. So if your only option is a Wednesday night to do a session, and at that time the pain management is difficult, but if it's not the Wednesday night, then you can't do it.
And you might not wanna commit to paying upfront for all of that. So we're working with partners to understand how do we set up more flexible membership, or how do we set up pay as you go, and how do we include online provision? So it's things like that we have to really understand.
[00:41:37] Dr Christopher Brown: Do you think it's ever possible to achieve equality in sport and physical activity between disabled and non-disabled people?
And if so, how many years down the line do you think it'll take?
[00:41:45] Adam Blaze: Years down the line? I don't think I can answer that. I don't think I can put a time on it. And that's not me trying to take a politician's answer because I like everyone gets frustrated when people don't answer a question.
I think it's possible. I do. I do genuinely think it's possible, which is why we all do what we do, because I think we can get to that point. But it will take significant collaboration amongst organisations in sport and physical activity. And in significant collaboration across society.
But that is why we're all doing what we're doing. So I fundamentally believe it's possible, and actually over the next few years, we need to be continuing to provide the expertise and the support across a number of areas to help other organisations in the way that we've been doing and become more focused on that.
But we also need to become more antagonistic. Get onto the right platforms, highlight the challenges that exist and ways to solve those problems. The situation we're in now will not change if we all just try and do the same things we've done. It won't change if we all try and do the same things we've done, but do it a bit better and work together a bit more and have a better understanding.
We have to be fundamentally stronger in the approaches that we’re taking, and the things that we say and how we work. Not just saying, this is the problem, it's inequitable, it's not good enough. It's saying that, but this is what we need to do.
[00:43:15] Dr Christopher Brown: Yeah, I think that's a really important point Everyone can moan and critique, but offering solutions that actually are workable.
That's obviously a harder piece and that's where hopefully you guys and Sport England, et cetera, can come in.
And then with that spirit in mind, my final question is, for those who are listening who are working in this space, organisations, providers, academics, whoever it might be, what's your recommendations for kind of gold standard sport and physical activity provision for disabled people?
[00:43:37] Adam Blaze: Before we get to the provision side, the gold standard piece, if we’re talking about academics and organisations, we need to work together more. We need to work together more. We need to each of us in a way, swallow some organisational egos and recognise that some people can do things better than others. We'll do that. We'll know that sometimes there are, we might think we are best to do that, but there might be others that could do it better, or there might be others that could do it just as good and we don't focus there because resource is limited. So this idea that we all need to work together: that's critical. That's absolutely critical.
In terms of the gold standard for provision of sport and physical activity and thinking about deliverers, I'd go back to the point you made earlier of we need to find a way.
And when I say we, that's a collective we, but I also mean we, where we can help, of getting organisations to understand the importance of talking to the people that they're trying to influence. Or even understanding there's people there that need to influence that they're not currently. And helping them find a route to get that detail and information back.
If we can move away from designing things that haven't been effectively consulted on, that would shift things in a way that we aren't currently doing so.
[00:44:50] Dr Christopher Brown: Excellent. Well, it's been great chatting to you, Adam. I would love to have another half an hour/hour. You've got patience and you've managed to last out this this chat.
But you are also a very busy man, so I really do appreciate your time and your thoughts, and I hope listeners will find it very interesting and hopefully inspiring for those who may be listening and working in this space. But yeah, I'd like to thank you, Adam, for taking the time and for chatting with me today.
[00:45:12] Adam Blaze: Oh, thank you. I really appreciated it. And just on that last point, if there are people listening that this has piqued an interest, or they want to get involved, then get in touch with us because we, this idea of collaborating and working with people, and it might be that we are putting people in touch with someone else, but the more people that are in sport and physical activity and disability that are pointing in the same direction, that are working on this challenge together, or we are working on their challenge with them, the more chance we've got of succeeding.
[00:45:38] Dr Christopher Brown: And what's the best way that organisations or individuals can get in touch with you guys?
[00:45:40] Adam Blaze: I would say the best way to do that is via our website. There's contact details on our website, and then we'll pick it up from there.
[00:45:47] Dr Christopher Brown: Okay. Great. Well, like I said, Adam, thank you so much. It's been great chatting to you.
[00:45:51] Adam Blaze: Thank you.
[00:45:52] Dr Christopher Brown: Excellent.
*** Discussion ends ***
[00:45:53] Dr Christopher Brown: Thanks for listening to this episode. A reminder, you can vote for Disability Sport info to win the Best Equality and Social Impact award in the Sports Podcast Awards. The link is in the episode description.
Thanks for listening to this episode. Stay tuned for another episode. Until then, goodbye.
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