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28 Jul 2021 | 11:11

This month marked the relaxation of Government restrictions around Covid-19. But what did the so-called 'Freedom Day' really mean for many people who always face barriers to accessibility in sport and physical activity? Patrick McGeough, CEO of inclusive dance charity and national body Para Dance UK, explains in this blog for the Sport for Development Coalition. 

Over the past 16 months, our world has changed beyond recognition. Since the beginning of the pandemic, almost all aspects of life - from work to sport to recreation - disappeared from our public spaces and moved online. Much has found a home on Zoom: from meetings and job interviews, to work-out classes and the Friday night pub quiz. But now, as restrictions are lifted and we return to our old offices, nightclubs and gyms, one question remains unanswered: what will become of the virtual world which has for many people created unprecedented accessibility and opportunity?  

This month saw Covid-19 cases rising again and at their highest since January. With the clinically vulnerable being advised to avoid indoor socialising, many felt nervous about the easing of restrictions on July 19th. Would the Government really deliver the ‘Freedom Day’ it had promised: a day when some level of ‘normal’ was to return? And if a pre-pandemic ‘normal’ is attainable, do we even want it? Para Dance UK is concerned that with the lifting of restrictions, one community in particular will suffer: disabled people. Therefore following the success of its year of online dance classes, it has a solution in mind.  

ACCESSIBILITY

From the grim statistics (60% of deaths from Covid-19 were disabled people) to the psychological ordeal of shielding; from a scarcity of care to the ever-lengthening NHS waiting lists, disabled people have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. But from a devastating year, there has emerged one unexpected silver lining: accessibility.  

In March 2020, just as the physical world was shutting down, the world online was stepping up. Suddenly, we were all conducting our lives through our screens; remote working and socialising through Zoom. It is not without irony that the accommodations for which disabled people had campaigned for decades were made possible overnight. Guardian journalist Frances Ryan said “as everyone became housebound [...] there was a paradoxical sense of freedom”; shops and borders may have been closing, but for the disabled community, the world was finally opening up.

Joanne, a disabled woman with learning difficulties and partial deafness, became involved with Para Dance UK when she discovered its dance classes online during the pandemic. Before Covid-19 she had never had the opportunity to try inclusive dance, because “where I live there isn’t much for people with learning difficulties”. She explains that she had also had “a few bad experiences” of prejudice from fitness instructors who “don’t want to have the time to take you on”. But taking part in inclusive dance lessons online, Joanne “didn’t feel judged and didn’t have to prove [myself] to anyone. I could just be myself”. For Joanne, who had so often experienced discrimination during in-person classes, this was liberating.

Funny moves

For disabled people like Joanne, inclusion was no longer fantasy - it was happening. So with ‘Freedom Day’ come and gone, and the inclusion of disabled people in society once again under threat, how will we maintain and expand upon the progress we have made in accessibility through the pandemic? 

First, it might be helpful to understand that physical activity is not necessarily what we imagine. It does not have to mean a spin class or HIIT training - in fact, it does not even have to mean a ‘sport’. It simply means: our bodies need to move! It is interesting that the World Health Organisation defines physical activity simply as “any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscle that requires energy expenditure”. This is surely reassuring for all of us: physical activity does not have to mean an intense work-out, nor does it have to be recreational; it can be a part of paid work (eg construction) or of domestic tasks (eg cleaning the house). Though of course recreational activity has the added bonus of improving our mental and emotional health. 

But whatever its intent, the benefits are clear: exercise is a well-established protective factor for the prevention and treatment of all the most common diseases; namely heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Yet since the start of the pandemic, most of us have become increasingly sedentary, which has had a significant toll on our physical and mental wellbeing.

COMMUNITY

We already know that disabled people have been particularly affected by Covid-19, with a recent BBC study showing that 72% of disabled people saw a deterioration in their disability over the course of the pandemic. Meanwhile, a study at University College London, found that people with disabilities have been more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, loneliness and sleep disorders since the start of the pandemic. Given the psycho-physiological benefits of physical activity, it is therefore especially worrying that disabled people are, according to Sport England, moving even less than their non-disabled counterparts. 

Certainly, Joanne found the lockdown “really tough”, being told to shield while being “an active person who loves face-to-face contact”. When she suddenly experienced a bereavement, she started to struggle with her mental health - but thankfully, she found a sort of therapy in dancing. Taking part in inclusive dance classes online gave her not only a “new skill”, but a feeling of freedom; of movement, and connection. She explains: “It means a lot, being part of a wider disabled community. I’ve met some really nice teachers and great people”. 

Athlete and part-time wheelchair user Lorraine agrees that Para Dance UK’s online dance videos made her feel “part of something”, and that even though she couldn’t dance with others face to face, she felt connected to other people just knowing that they too were dancing to and enjoying the same videos. Jackie, meanwhile, was a competitive dancer in the 80s, but she thought her dancing days had come to an end when she suffered a spinal stroke in 2012. So she was delighted to stumble upon Para Dance UK’s inclusive dance videos through a spinal injury group on Facebook; she gave it a go and was amazed that she could, of course, still dance - all she had needed was for dance to be made accessible to her with her recent impairment.

There are no rules on who can or can’t dance. Para Dance UK insists that dancing is for everyone, if only it is made inclusive - and its benefits, especially at the moment, are immense. The charity was recently recognised for its efforts to support the disability community through the lockdown with safe and inclusive dance: Dr Lisa Cameron MP, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Disability at Westminster, recognised Para Dance UK’s work at increasing accessibility in sport and took the opportunity to call on the Government to prioritise the physical and mental health needs of people with disabilities through Covid-19 and into the future.

Following Freedom Day, perhaps we might take this opportunity to ask ourselves how we can better support disabled people through inclusive sport systems. This month has seen a turning point which asks the question: what do we want our ‘new normal’ to look like? Regardless of a successful mass vaccination programme, or Government guidelines being relaxed on July 19th, Covid cases have been rising. Therefore, in reality, much of the disabled community will continue to shield, or at least to exercise caution in their daily lives. Joanne fears that with Freedom Day, we will soon be “back to where we started”. When she references the latest study which shows that people with learning disabilities are eight times more likely to die of Covid-19, she insists “I have to be really careful, still”. 

This calls for a revised approach to how sport is designed and implemented for vulnerable communities, with the threat of the virus still ongoing, and beyond.

In January 2021, support from the Government’s #CultureRecoveryFund enabled Para Dance UK to launch ‘Tour of the Floor’, a series of flexible, inclusive dance videos and downloadable resources - rather than live classes - which could be watched in people’s own time. This was key to making dance inclusive to people with all different types of disabilities, particularly those which may be fluctuating in nature. People with chronic illnesses who may not have been well enough to attend a one-off live class, were in this way able to exercise at a time which suited them.

HYBRID

‘Tour of the Floor’ encourages its dancers to explore dance genres from around the world so that everyone could find a style which suited their needs. Para Dance UK finds that people with different disabilities often require different types of dance; for some people, Latin is fun and accessible, while others - due to either preference or impairment - are better suited to Contemporary or Street. 

From YouTube work-outs to a boom in indoor exercise equipment, certainly the pandemic has changed how we exercise. But as gyms re-open and in-person classes resume, how will loosening restrictions impact exercise provision for disabled people? Para Dance UK suggests a hybrid approach: where in-person events resume when safe, but online opportunities continue to be offered to those who still face ongoing barriers (eg being housebound). 

Before Covid-19, to disabled people ‘normal’ meant a lack of access. ‘Normal’ meant isolation, and exclusion from everyday life. So with Freedom Day upon us, might we rather not to go back to ‘normal’? Instead, could we rather learn from our past mistakes - when the world was inaccessible to one in five of us - and apply what the pandemic has taught us: that human bodies are all different, but all fragile, and that physical activity is essential for our wellbeing.

Dancing together online

Para Dance UK wants to help rebuild the sport system and commit to a hybrid approach that offers everyone opportunities to exercise safely and enjoyably, in-person and online. More than ever, Para Dance UK is committed to its motto that 'everyone can dance'. 

So as we run, walk and wheel into an uncertain future following July 19th, inclusive dance will remain a sport where everyone can thrive - as long as we continue to question what is 'normal' and to always ask ourselves: who is being left behind? 

  • For more information on Para Dance UK work on Inclusive Dance and Para Dance Sport www.paradance.org.uk.
  • To stay in touch with Para Dance UK work on Inclusive Dance and Para Dance Sport subscribe here.
  • For more information on the free online dance sessions Para Dance UK is offering, click here.