Activity Alliance have released new research exploring the relationship the children and young people with disabilities have with sport and physical activity. With almost one million disabled children in England it is important that we understand their activity levels as well as their perceptions surrounding physical activity; by better understanding their experiences we can help provide opportunities for them and include them in physical activity whilst promoting inclusion early in life, helping to develop positive, lifelong habits.

As with their peers disabled children see their activity levels decline with age, however, their activity levels are lower and by Key Stage 4 there is a difference of 20% in those who are active and fairly active (52% v 72%)

Decline in activity levels for disabled children by key stage

Furthermore, during term time 30% of disabled children are less active (less than 30 minutes a day) compared to 21% of their less disabled peers. Meanwhile, a quarter are unable to take part in sport all the time at school, this is just 4% for non-disabled children. It is also disappointing to find that one in five do not like PE, less than one in 10 non-disabled children feel this way. This clearly highlights the need for inclusive opportunities and for activities to be co-produced to ensure that all our young people can reap the benefits of an active lifestyle.

It is, however, promising to see that seven in ten enjoy sport, and whilst this is lower than their non-disabled peers (eight in ten) it is still positive and emphasises the positive impact projects are having. Whilst there are differences in where young people are being active, disabled children are less likely to have been active in the park, leisure centre or sports team, it is positive to see that there are similar levels of activity at home, clubs like Brownies and Scouts and at competitions.

Parents and Guardians

With nine in ten parents of disabled children saying that their child’s physical activity level is important to them and a quarter saying that decisions on being active are driven by them, the report highlights the need to support parents. With all parents finding cost and a lack of suitable places a barrier to their child’s activity we must consider the additional barriers faced by parents of disabled children including a lack of support and understanding from those in the sport sector, safety and the lack of information on suitable activities. As such we must work with medical professionals and those in the sector to ensure that these barriers are minimised and parents, as key decision makers, are supported to encourage their children to be active

Children’s Wants

The research also looked into what factors would enable them to be more active with five key themes developing.

  • Acceptance and understanding – both parents and children wanting others to understand their impairment and the implications as well as patience when they are taking part.
  • Greater choice of activities – activities are suitable for disabled children to take part in confidently. It is important that the nature of the choice varies with 44% wanting to take part in fully inclusive activities, 20% want to be active with those with similar impairments and 15% want to take part with others with a range of impairments.
  • Low pressure – being able to make mistakes and learn at their own pace would make disabled children more comfortable. This may involve small groups, skill building activities and a focus on fun
  • Practical support – many children want more support to be active, and to feel less reliant on their parents and guardians.
  • Motivation – a focus on taking part, not winning, and encouragement from teachers, healthcare professionals and wider representation in society.

The report highlighted four key recommendations:

  1. Engage with and listen to all children

Activity should appeal to the motivations of all young people; having fun, take part with friends and staying healthy are key drivers for all young people. They should also look at the motivations for disabled children, particularly around fostering a sense of belonging and a feeling of independence

  1. Build confidence and independence from a young age

By supporting all young people to develop a better understanding of disabilities we can celebrate differences which in turn could decrease bullying, social isolation and encourage inclusion. Furthermore, challenging perceptions of disability amongst children and parents and provide reliable information on the risks and reassurances on how to overcome potential barriers. Opportunities need to be created to address personal feelings and develop confidence such as through campaigns, role models and representation. This needs to continue as children grow up and opportunities need to be designed to re-engage older children.

  1. Engage leaders on the need for inclusion and show them how to create comfortable environments

Teachers and deliverers need to be trained and supported to better understand the individual needs of disabled children and how leaders can create truly inclusive activities. This needs to include support to encourage the least active with a focus on predictability and a comfortable environment to build confidence. Furthermore, government and stakeholders must work together to support disabled children to live, study and play on equal terms.

  1. Support and encourage parents to help their child to live an active life

Parents and guardians need reassurance around the wellbeing of their child and to address concerns about their ability to take part, with some valuing advice from their child’s healthcare professional. Practical support needs to be offered such as providing carers during an activity or travel to the activity. The link between a parents’ and child’s activity levels should be harnessed as well as initiatives that encourage them to be active together and links should also be made with initiatives that provide general support.

The full report can be found here.