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23 Sep 2021 | 13:13

It’s a familiar refrain; a major sporting event comes to a climax and, as the fanfare dies away, the same questions re-surface: What is the impact of elite sport on wider society? Beyond inspiration, what are the tangible benefits for our communities from the investment in athletes and medals? Here the Coalition's Strategic Communications Manager, Simon Lansley, speaks to network members about the impact they are making on a daily basis.

This month, as the curtain came down on Paralympics GB’s phenomenal performance in Tokyo, it was left to the Activity Alliance Chief Executive, Barry Horne, to observe that the Paralympics is “under too much pressure” to change behaviour and dramatically increase disabled people’s participation in sport and physical activity. Even before some of the current financial pressures on grassroots and community sport are considered, stubborn inequalities have been exacerbated by the pandemic; earlier this year, Activity Alliance reported disabled people were twice as likely to be inactive compared to non-disabled people.

Therefore, while the Paralympics and important new global campaigns such as We Are 15 can do much to raise awareness, the Sport for Development Coalition – a growing group of more than 200 organisations and networks using sport and physical activity to generate positive social outcomes – believes they must be underpinned by two key principles, which are: 

  • scalable, accessible opportunities at community level 
  • achieved within an enabling policy environment. 

Without these two factors, the hoped-for step change – both in terms of greater participation in physical activity and the positive social outcomes which can be derived from sport-based interventions, such as improved mental wellbeing or increased employability skills – will not be sustained, or reach scale.

Hannah Cockcroft

It was with some disappointment that Activity Alliance’s Chair, Sam Orde, noted the Government’s new National Disability Strategy “fails to present the huge mutual benefits that being active brings to all policy areas” when it was published this summer. Nonetheless channels remain open to demonstrate the value of sport and physical activity to wider outcomes and associated policy priorities – for example through the health and disability green paper published by the Department of Work and Pensions in July. 

And as it seeks to support the Government’s ‘Levelling Up’ agenda and challenge inequalities wherever they exist, the Coalition is dedicated to exposing and remedying more fundamental reasons why disabled people face so many barriers to being active – as an example, this 2018 research from Activity Alliance looks at the fear many disabled people have of losing benefits if they are seen to be active.


Every day across the UK, Coalition member organisations are supporting disabled people to become more active, look after their mental wellbeing, and connect with their community – sometimes supporting them on the pathway to “live independently and move into work where possible”, as prescribed by the DWP’s green paper. 

  • Coalition members like the Panathlon Challenge, which every year gives thousands of young people with disabilities and special needs the opportunity to take part in competitive sport. During the pandemic, the charity changed its entire delivery model to go online and engaged with just under 46,000 pupils in 2020/21 in 583 schools during a time of acute need. Its Chief Operating Officer, Tony Waymouth, commented: “Covid-19 has exacerbated many pre-existing inequalities for disabled people and led to increased inactivity among many, but we took a 'front-foot' approach, showed agility and ingenuity, learned lots along the way, and most importantly, never gave up in trying to engage and energise SEND young people in the testing circumstances. We will continue to develop and modify our approach as we head into 2021/22 and we believe it's this flexibility which the sector needs to ensure everyone gets opportunities to flourish and achieve.” 
  • Anna Stogdon, Monitoring & Evaluation Manager for The Lord’s Taverners, welcomed the message of the Paralympics which she believes was “all about ability, not disability” but noted that major events and campaigns are “highlights” which “come and go”. She added: “It is through the work of organisations like Lord’s Taverners that the spirit of their message is kept alive and driven forward, helping to knock down the barriers to inclusion. Working with and sharing thinking with other sport for development organisations, whatever our sport, helps us bring focus to what we can all achieve together, to shout louder on behalf of disabled people and to bring long-term change in attitude, inclusion and provision.” Anna added: “Sport is not just about playing, we make it about fun, socialising, learning life skills, growing in confidence and independence, being part of a team and feeling they belong.  All things that every young person, whatever their ability, should have the opportunity to easily access.” 
  • Research from Boccia England showed at the time of the Paralympics, just 36% of its clubs had returned to activity since Covid-19 restrictions had eased. The governing body’s Head of Development, Kate Moss, explained: “Our priority over recent months has been to build the confidence of our players and volunteers and supporting our clubs so there is a boccia infrastructure to return to, and one that is accessible to new people. We have done this through the publication of a cautious roadmap that gradually sees our competitions return over the next year and continuing to recommend guidance for club sessions. We have hosted regular drop-in sessions for club volunteers and players, supported our network of club forums with the challenges they face, and have regularly undertaken a survey to understand how people feel about their return. Throughout the pandemic we continued to work with a range of partners supporting the delivery of activity in both home and public settings.” 
  • Catherine Hughes, CEO of British Nordic Walking CIC, reported that, as an outdoor activity, her organisation has seen new interest since the easing of Covid restrictions with many of the community projects it partners with starting to expand their Nordic Walking activities. “There is not only still a need to maintain a focus on disability sport and activity but an appetite for it too,” she said. “Some Nordic Walking projects – such as those with Parkinson’s UK and Limb Power – focus on specific disabilities. Others will work with a local community and welcome participants with a range of conditions including arthritis, autism, and partial sight. Commercial instructors also welcome Nordic Walkers with disabilities into their regular classes. This collaborative approach across private, public and Third Sector activities allows the regular sharing of experience so that anyone who wants to try out Nordic Walking can be assured of a warm and understanding welcome and a person-centred approach to teaching.” 
  • Alissa Ayling, Head of Sport and Physical Activity for Sense, believes the Coalition’s principles of collective action and collaboration are essential for tackling inequalities. “We know that over half (53%) of disabled people would feel less isolated and lonely if venues and social activities were more accessible and welcoming to disabled people. Our sport and physical activity programme has been expanding over the last five years thanks to funding from Sport England and the National Lottery. Our regional presence in five areas of England currently ensures there is localised provision for people with complex disabilities to be active in their local communities.  By working in collaboration, we can address these inequalities and make real changes to tackle loneliness for disabled people encouraging all of us to take small steps to make our communities more inclusive.”  
  • Patrick McGeough, CEO of Para Dance UK, noted how the low uptake of disabled sports and activities post the 2016 Paralympics – due to the lack of inclusive activities in local areas or personal barriers to getting started – had been exacerbated by the pandemic “coupled with unclear and confusing guidelines regarding shielding and support for disabled people”. He commented: “Whilst most have been celebrating the release from Covid-19 restrictions in the UK, many of the 14 million disabled people in the UK have been forced into further shielding practices, but this time without the support infrastructure which previously accompanied it.” Para Dance has been tackling this “by providing opportunities for individuals of all abilities to dance and move whilst accessing the multiple benefits of movement to music within their own home”. He added: “Together we can ensure no disabled person faces barriers to getting active and in a world with such rich technological options we have more potential to reach people beyond our locational limitations.” 

As the Paralympics closed Barry Horne, Activity Alliance Chief Executive, urged leaders and policy-makers “not to switch focus” from the rights of disabled people to lead physically active lifestyles, which – through targeted sport for development programmes and initiatives – can also see them benefit from wider outcomes than participation, from greater confidence, resilience and mental wellbeing to increased employability skills.


He also stated: “Our research tells us disabled people are more likely to be inspired and influenced by a member of their family, by a neighbour or by a GP who has thought through the process of actively advocating sports and activity. They’re the real things that actually resonate with a significant number of disabled people who are not traditionally active and don’t see themselves as becoming Paralympians.” 

It is by supporting and scaling up these “real things”, and the people and organisations who sustain accessible and inclusive opportunities – allied to an enabling policy environment – which will provide the long-lasting impact and legacy that the Paralympic Games and our inspirational athletes really deserve.

If your organisation intentionally uses sport and physical activity to generate positive social outcomes, sign up to our Charter and join the Movement.

Pic credits: Panathlon, Youth Sport Trust.