Disabled people set to guide the fitness industry

There is a significant under-representation of disabled people in the UK workforce, with this population having lower levels of qualification, employment, voluntary service opportunities and income, compared to non-disabled people.

Data from the Office of National Statistics indicates that from April–June 2017, only 49.6 per cent of individuals with a long-standing health issue or disability were in employment. According to the Sport England Active People Survey 10, disabled people also exhibit lower levels of physical activity participation than non-disabled people (17 per cent compared to 39.9 per cent, respectively), despite this being a group that could benefit largely from the physical and mental health advantages that physical activity can offer.

Research indicates that barriers to physical activity participation include a scarcity of inclusive opportunities, a lack of information about such opportunities, and difficulties with accessibility. Other reports indicate that poor disability awareness and understanding by fitness centre staff, and an absence of appropriate marketing and communications to disabled customers, are also key social obstacles.

In addition to lower levels of participation, there are comparatively few disabled people employed within the fitness and leisure industry. Barriers disabled people face when seeking training and employment in the fitness sector include lack of accessible training and work facilities, appropriate training format and structure, and discrimination in job application and interview processes. With few disabled people employed there are also few disabled role models to encourage physical activity participation.

There is evidence, however, that disabled staff can encourage greater participation. The inclusive ethos at Aspire Leisure Centre enjoys a 50 per cent disabled workforce, which has resulted in 30 per cent of the centre’s membership comprising of disabled people. A survey of disabled members revealed that they believe a disabled fitness instructor is more likely to understand their needs, capabilities, and experiences, and that they were more likely to go to a gym with disabled instructors present.

Leading the way to facilitate this, is the Aspire charity’s InstructAbility programme, which is the only initiative that focuses on disabled people’s career progression and has now deployed over 300 disabled fitness professionals into paid and voluntary positions across the country. The longer-term vision of InstructAbility is to influence the sector to the extent that programmes such as theirs will no longer be necessary.

To achieve this, it is crucial that there is a systematic and comprehensive sector-wide effort, and associated changes in policy, to raise awareness, and enhance inclusion and accessibility. We need to develop a sector in which disabled people feel confident and valued as consumers and employees, and where they can trust that their training and professional development will be as equally accessible to them as their non-disabled peers.

This requires a range of training providers, qualification-awarding bodies, leisure operators, and fitness and leisure organisations to work together and adopt a consistent approach to the training and employment of disabled people. To kick-start this impetus of change, Aspire has teamed up with Professor Brett Smith and myself from the University of Birmingham to collaborate on a project that is set to work with disabled people to explore the barriers and solutions to promoting inclusive policy and practice.

Funded by Sport England, the aims of the research are to track current InstructAbility students and past graduates through their journeys into fitness professional roles, and will also uniquely investigate the views about disability held by fitness operators and organisation CEOs and managers, HR, marketing, and frontline staff, and disabled and non-disabled gym users.

The data collected will be used to produce a series of bespoke and accessible Best Practice Guidelines, co-created with disabled people, for each of these various stakeholder groups. It is hoped that these guidelines will offer clear and consistent information to follow, to ensure that their policies and practices are inclusive, accessible, and that disabled people are treated equally in their journey to becoming physically active and/or realising their career goals as fitness professionals.


Dr Juliette Stebbings
School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences, University of Birmingham