Annual Disability And Activity Survey 2020-21

Activity Alliance have just released their Annual Disability and Activity Survey, the fieldwork for this latest edition took place from June to September 2020. This was a period during the pandemic when restrictions were being eased and included the lifting of shielding advice on 1st August.

Overhead view of a group dance exercise class in a community centre

The report highlights that work across the sector and wider initiatives were having a positive impact with positive changes in attitudes amongst disabled people. However, long standing inequalities still exist, disabled women, young people and those from BAME backgrounds still face additional barriers to being active. The impact of the pandemic as a whole is disproportionately affecting disabled people in terms of opportunities to be active as well as presenting new barriers to activity.

Pre - COVID-19

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic disabled people were significantly less likely to be inactive compare to the previous year (34% in 2020/21 compared to 41% in 2019/20). It is promising to see the inactivity gap narrow from an inactivity rate four times higher amongst disabled people in 2019/20 to 3.4 times. However, there has been no change in the proportion of disabled people doing no activity (21%).

Over three quarters (77%) of disabled people feel that their health conditions, impairments or illnesses affect them doing sport or physical activity a lot. However, this is a significant decrease compared to last year when four in five (81%) reported that it affected them a lot. Those most likely to report that their health condition affects them a lot are those who are inactive (92%), those with a mobility impairment (90%), older disabled people (87%), those with three or more impairments (87%) and those with a dexterity impairment (86%).

It is promising to see significantly more disabled people (+18%) reporting that they feel they have the opportunity to be active, however, this is still significantly lower than for non-disabled people. The differences in perceived opportunities amongst disabled people also varies. 34% of disabled women reported they are not given the opportunity to be as active as they would like compared to 23% of men, a similar pattern is seen by age with younger disabled people being more likely to believe they have suitable opportunities (36% compared to 25% of older disabled people).

Around one in six (18%) disabled people reported being happy with how much activity they are doing, amongst non-disabled people the rate is over twice this (40%). Younger disabled people were also less likely to report they would like to do more in comparison to disabled people on average (56% v 78%).

Perceptions in sport and physical activity have seen some positive changes with there being a significant increase in the proportion of disabled people feeling that physical activity and exercise is for someone like them compared to last year (57% v 51%). This is, however, still significantly different to the perceptions of non-disabled people where over three-quarters (77%) agreed with the statement. Despite these positive changes negative perceptions around sport still remain, just a third (35%) of disabled people thought that sport was for someone like them. Meanwhile, enjoyment levels are also significantly lower amongst disabled people (68%) compared to non-disabled people (79%). Amongst disabled people enjoyment rates were higher amongst those who are active (70%) compared to those who are inactive (59%),

For disabled people the most commonly cited barriers to being active were long-term health condition (LTHC, 77%), getting older (32%) and general lack of motivation (30%). Whilst LTHC as a barrier is down on last year, which indicates that perceptions around impairments are beginning to change, a lack of motivation has gone up. It is clear that inactive disabled people are more likely to see their condition as a barrier (92% v 68% for active disabled people), amongst other barriers there is no difference by activity level.

For disabled people the most commonly cited motivations for being active were to improve physical health (67%), to lose/maintain weight (53%) and to improve mental health (44%). There were also significant increases in those citing to relax (+5%), to give me something to do (+6%) and to socialise (+6%) as motivations to be active.

The impact of COVID-19 on physical activity

During the pandemic there has been a significant increase (+14%) in the proportion of disabled people feeling that they do not have the opportunity to be active. For women in particular the lack of perceived opportunities is evident with just 35% of disabled women said they are able to be as physically active as they want, this is significantly less than disabled men (43%) and non-disabled women (60%).

Disabled people are also significantly more likely to state that Covid-19 has impacted their ability to be active to a great extent compared to non-disabled people. Amongst disabled people there is also significant variance; seven in ten (71%) under 30’s stated their ability to be active has been affected compared to less than three in five (57%) over 70’s. Meanwhile, those from a BAME background are also more likely to have had their ability to be active reduced, 86% felt they had been limited compared to just 57% of White disabled people.

For disabled people the most commonly cited barriers to being active as a result of Covid-19 were self-isolating (38%), the closure of indoor facilities, clubs and spaces (37%), fear over contracting Covid-19 (35%) and the impact on their physical or mental health (31%). With the exception of closure of facilities all of these were more likely to be barriers to disabled people than non-disabled people. Disabled men were more likely to list fear of contracting the virus as a barrier (41%) than women (31%), this aligns to much of the news at the time which stated Covid-19 was more likely to result in death amongst men. While two fifths (40%) of White disabled people said they had been stopped from being active due to a need to self-isolate, this was only the case among a fifth (22%) of BAME disabled people.

Disabled people are more likely than non-disabled people to have taken part in no activities on their own (25% v 10%). They also have significantly lower rates of individual participation in physical activity at home led by an online instructor (20% v 31%) and physical activities outside (41% v 64%). Self-led activities at home was the only activity where there were comparable rates of participation between disabled and non-disabled people (35% v 39%). In line with trends seen elsewhere disabled women (23%) were more likely to take part in activities at home led by an online instructor than disabled men (15%). Younger disabled people were also more likely to take part in online instructor led activities, with U30’s (37%) and 30-39 year olds (38%) almost twice as likely to participate compared to the average (20%). BAME disabled people were also more likely to take part in physical activity at home led by an online instructor (40% of BAME disabled people compared with 18% of White disabled people).

Similar patterns are seen when looking at activities undertaken with others, this may be linked to the fear of contracting Covid-19. In fact 56% of disabled people reporting taking part in no activities with others, this compares to just 37% of non-disabled people. Interestingly BAME disabled people were more likely than White disabled people to have taken part in activities with others. This includes physical activities outside the house (44% v 28%) and self-led physical activity at home (26% v10%).

One in four (23%) of disabled people felt they did not receive enough information about remaining active during the pandemic, this was highest amongst those with mental health conditions (34%), those who do no activity (28%) and those with three or more impairments (27%).

It is concerning that three in four (74%) of disabled people felt that Covid-19 had affected their health condition/impairment to some extent. It has particularly impacted those with mental health or learning difficulties (82%) and those with chronic conditions (78%). The most common way they had been impacted was their mental health, this is predominantly a result of a reduction in social interaction and routine with shielding significantly impacting on this. There was also further impacts on their condition through cancelled and delayed appointments and treatments which for some has led to worsening health.

Types of Activity

Whilst disabled people are still less likely to take part in sport or physical activity than non-disabled people, however, before Covid-19 disabled people had seen an increase, compared to 2019/20, in recreational individual sport (+4%), recreational team sport (+2%) and competitive individual sport (+3%). Across activity types there is a significant difference in participation rates between disabled and non-disabled people, however, the gaps have shrunk. Disabled women are more likely than disabled men to have taken part in any form of physical activity (80% v 73%). However, participation in sport is still driven primarily by men in both recreational (27% men v 19% women) and competitive (11% men v 7% women) sports. Competitive sports remain, as last year, more prevalent amongst those with learning disabilities or sensory impairments (12%) compared to those with physical impairments (7%).

The most important aspects of how sport and physical activity is delivered has not changed since 2019/20. However, the top three factors in 2019/20 have declined in importance for disabled people, although they do all remain in the top five factors. The least important factors have also seen no change but it is important to note that disabled women were more likely than disabled men to find advertising important such as advertising being reassuring (61% women v 47% men).

In line with previous findings around half of disabled and non-disabled people participate in sport and physical activity alone. Disabled people were also more likely to be active with a mixture of disabled and non-disabled people (20% vs 12% of non-disabled people). Meanwhile, younger disabled people were significantly more likely to report they exercise with disabled people with different impairments to them (9% v 1% on average). Additionally, disabled people who reported that Covid-19 had not impacted their ability to do sport were more likely to report that they had exercised alone (63%) compared to those who felt they had been impacted to a great extent (40%). This most likely indicates that those who previously exercised alone may have had a more positive experience of physical activity droning the pandemic as they were able to continue exercising alone.

Information on sport and physical activity

Disabled people are more likely to say they would listen to healthcare professionals (65% GPs, doctors or nurses and 60% physios and occupational therapists) about advice on sport and physical activity compared to non-disabled people (44% GPs, doctors or nurses and 39% physios and occupational therapists. This year there has also been significant increase in those reporting that they would listen to friends (+5%), other family members (+7%) and the government (+11%).


Clear differences exist between disabled and non-disabled people and their perceptions of health, disabled people are more likely to report being in poor (33% v 26%) or very poor health (11% v 1%). However, key differences exist amongst disabled people with nearly half of men (49%) viewing their health as poor compared to two fifths of women (41%). Furthermore, BAME disabled respondents were more likely to have a positive view of their health (37%) compared to White disabled respondents (15%).

During Covid-19 the life satisfaction gaps between disabled and non-disabled people narrowed, this has been primarily been driven by a significant decline in non-disabled people being satisfied (-9%). Amongst disabled people those who are active are more likely to be satisfied with their life, however, inactive disabled people have seen a decline in those reporting being dissatisfied.

Disabled people reported lower levels of happiness than non-disabled people. However, differences between the groups were lower this year, again driven by a decrease among the non-disabled group. Younger disabled people and those with mental health and learning difficulties reported lower levels of happiness.

Disabled people were more likely to be anxious than non-disabled people. The gap between the groups increased this year due to non-disabled people being significantly less anxious this year. Higher levels of anxiety were found among BAME disabled people (30% v 19% White) and younger disabled people (29% U30’s and 33% 30-39 year olds compared to 20% on average).

Disabled people were less likely than non-disabled people to consider the things they do in life worthwhile, but the gap between the groups narrowed between years. This is primarily because there was no difference in disabled people’s views on the worthwhileness of the things in their life across years. Like other wellbeing measures, nearly a quarter (23%) of disabled women said that the things in life they did were not worthwhile compared with a sixth (17%) of disabled men, and a tenth (10%) of both non-disabled men and women. There were no significant differences between these groups last year, suggesting that the COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly damaging for disabled women.

Benefits, financial assistance and physical activity

Benefits and financial assistance such as Personal Independence Payments play an important role in the lives of many disabled people and many fear losing their benefits if they are seen as physically active. It is promising to see a decrease (-10%) in disabled people fearing that their benefits will be taken away if they are active, however, this still means that three in ten (31%) view the potential less of financial assistance as a barrier to being active. However, this fear is higher amongst those who do some activity (34%) that amongst those who do no activity (25%), thus indicating that the loss of benefits limits activities rather than prevents it.

One in five (21%) disabled people did report that being active had negatively affected their benefits, or the benefits of someone they know. However, this was more prevalent amongst those from a BAME background (37%) than those from a White background (16%). It was also more prevalent amongst younger people (31%) than older people (8%).

The conditionality of benefits was less likely to influence how active disabled people were this year. Disabled people who were already active were more likely to report that they would increase activity levels if their benefits or financial assistance were unconditional (32% v 16% of those who do no activity).


  1. Provide clear and consistent information about being active
  2. Embed inclusive practice into opportunities as they recover
  3. Work collaboratively to address new challenges arising from COVID-19
  4. Offer a variety of ways to be active
  5. Change attitudes towards disabled people in sport and activity

The full report can be read here.

Published February 2021