Social Justice

'I felt intimidated': Disabled people feel shut out of playing and watching sport, report finds

In a big summer of sport with the Euros, Olympics and Paralympics, new research from The Disability Policy Centre has found that disabled people feel excluded from both playing and watching sport

mary on a climbing wall

Mary says that she would go to climbing centres and not even be able to get through the door, let alone up the wall. Image: Supplied

Mary FitzMeilton fell in love with climbing as a teenager. She adored the adrenaline and the community. But when she became disabled in her late teen years, she felt forced to give up the sport. 

There were climbing centres where she could not even get through the doors as a wheelchair user, let alone up the wall.

“I used to feel really intimidated going into a climbing centre,” the 26-year-old says. “Everyone looked really strong and fit, and I was there with my wheelchair feeling like I just didn’t fit in.

“It was tough because it makes you feel like you’re not welcome there, like you don’t belong there.
And I think that kind of fed into my own belief of like not feeling like I fitted in.”

The Disability Policy Centre has found that half (49%) of disabled people face a lack of suitable options to play sport or take part in physical activity near where they live. 

Over a quarter (26%) of those who weren’t able to participate cited a lack of social care support and nearly a quarter (23%) blamed inaccessible transport. 

Mary FitzMeilton, 26, is an enthusiastic climber who faced many accessibility challenges with climbing walls over the years. Image: Supplied

FitzMeilton, who is from Wiltshire, has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome – a rare genetic condition which affects the connective tissue. It can cause hyper-mobility in the joints, as well as stretchy and fragile skin that breaks and bruises easily.

“When my symptoms became more severe and I started using a wheelchair, I started feeling that climbing wasn’t for me anymore,” FitzMeilton says. “One of the biggest things was changing my own mindset.

“When I very first went back to climbing, I definitely tried to go at it as a non-disabled person, when it didn’t really work. I was feeling out of place. I was pushing myself in ways that weren’t right for my body.”

On one occasion, she went into a climbing centre using crutches and someone said: “You’re not a good advert for climbing, are you?” FitzMeilton understood it was a joke, but it impacted her.

There are also barriers to watching sport. More than half (52%) of disabled people they surveyed were prevented from watching sport due to a lack of accessibility in their venue of choice, including pubs and stadiums.

It comes during a summer of sport including Wimbledon, the Euros in Germany, and the Paris Olympics and Parlaympics.

Chloe Schendel-Wilson, co-founder and director of The Disability Policy Centre, said: “We’ve seen a very welcome push to kick racism, sexism and homophobia out of sport recently, but progress has stalled on ableism. The impact of the Lionesses on women and girl’s football shows the power that sport can have.

“Many are still facing barriers to both watching and playing sport, which can not only impact a person’s health and life chances but causes social isolation and a lack of community. For example, some might have been forced to watch the Euros at home alone instead of in a pub with friends because of a lack of accessibility.”

The Disability Policy Centre is calling for stronger enforcement of the Equality Act on bars, pubs and clubhouses, free passes for carers accompanying disabled adults to gyms and sport centres, and a legal obligation on gyms and sports centres to offer adjustments to disabled people.

It also wants it to be made easier for the public to report accessibility failures, and mandatory disability training for sports coaches and gym instructors.

Schendel-Wilson added: “We need enforcement of existing equality laws, to make it easier to report accessibility failures to councils, and a nationwide wake-up call to the injustices facing disabled people. Being disabled isn’t a barrier to playing and watching sport, but a culture that sometimes forgets you exist certainly is. With a new government in place, we hope this can start to change.”

FitzMeilton would also like to see changes implemented to make sport more accessible. “Right through the sector, everybody’s got a part to play in it,” she says. “I think coming from a climbing perspective, centre managers and people developing climbing walls, there’s a responsibility with the infrastructure.

“Then there’s other climbers in the gym, just having that understanding and attitude to being open to more disabilities, that is just as important. It’s people not making comments when they come in the gym. At the wall I go to regularly, no one bats an eyelid. I’m part of the culture.

“Equally, I think disabled people have a part to play in championing this and not letting ourselves be ignored, and taking our space in the exercise and sport world.”

FitzMeilton is doing just that. She launched Access to Climb in 2022, a central information hub on accessibility for climbing centres across the country.

“One of the big issues that I was finding is that climbing centres are just not good at sharing access information like they may well be brilliantly accessible, but you just didn’t know about it,” FitzMeilton says. “Access to Climb provides really basic accessibility information about climbing walls.

“We’re not there to judge. It’s literally just sharing information, and it’s all totally sourced from the community. People submit information about their local wall. As well as being a resource, it’s open up the conversation a bit more. I’ve had conversations with quite a lot of walls now, and they’ve asked for advice on what they can do to be better. It’s putting accessibility in the conversation.”

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