Should we be marketing disability sport or sport for the disabled?

Sports Marketing Network held their Marketing Disability Sport conference at Stoke Mandeville National Centre for Wheelchair Sport in July. Svend Elkjaer explains how he soon realised that there should really be little difference in marketing sport participation, regardless of people’s mental or physical ability

Svend Elkjaer

In the UK today we are facing serious challenges getting disabled people physically active and to be honest we are struggling to get what is a very large part of the population into sport. There are 10.8 million disabled people in the UK, of whom only 8.8% are physically active in any way, compared to over 21% of the whole population. This one-day independent seminar brought practitioners from as far away as Scotland and asked how we in the sport and leisure industry can help improve these rather depressing statistics.

Stewart Lucas, chief executive of London Sports Forum for Disabled People, opened the day and asked the salient questions: “Why isn’t this part of a marketing sport event? Why is there need for a special event focusing on disabled people and sport?” Stewart then stated that the main barriers to increasing disabled people’s participation in sport are created by people’s perceptions; not the trams, toilets, or equipment but created by providers, disabled people themselves and by society. Rather than dwell on negatives, he did point to positive examples of inclusive facilities, programmes, clubs and other organisations which exist all over UK but are uncoordinated and whose best practice is rarely shared.

He argued that we have made it too easy for the mainstream to opt out and have turned disability sport into a ‘good deed’ and a ‘worthy cause’. We have done this by creating a vision and an ideal of exclusiveness and created exclusive opportunities in sports that are targeted at, adapted for and played by disabled people. This is why he prefers the notion of ‘sport for the disabled’ which looks at the wider picture and addresses the concept of disabled people accessing mainstream sport as equals. His phrase also promotes the concept of mainstream provision being inclusive of disabled people and promotes disabled people choosing the sport of their choice rather than having their impairment decreeing the sport they pursue. Stewart concluded that disability sport has its place as exclusive provision but we have to ask: “Is it detrimental to disabled people equally accessing mainstream provision?”

Chris Easton, marketing manager at the Inclusive Fitness Initiative, presented some statistics [see below] and put forward the notion that we should use the term ‘inclusive fitness’ as the prevalence of disability increases with age and in our ageing population disability is likely to increase proportionately.

Having made the case for operating inclusively, he argued that we should make sure our staff understand how to operate inclusively, understand what the organisation is doing to operate inclusively and most importantly believe in the principles of inclusion. His point was that too many fitness centres only target ‘the beautiful people’ and tend to scare away a vast part of the population. By running inclusive centres we can attract and retain groups of people who would normally not feel comfortable in gym or leisure centre. The imperative to do this is surely the large number of people in the different groups of disabled people who represent a vast, untapped commercial market potential.

This message was echoed by Tasha Dyson of Aspire, a social enterprise that offers practical support to the 40,000 people living with a spinal cord injury in the UK so that they can lead fulfilled and independent lives. At their fully inclusive leisure centre in Stanmore in Middlesex their fitness studio attracts over 1,500 visits per week from the general public and the same number of visits from members. They also attract 500 able-bodied and 100 disabled swim school pupils per week and they get seventeen visits per week from disabled groups. Indeed all of their numbers are impressive: 25% of their members have a registered disability, 43% of group usage is by disabled groups and 17% of swim school students have disabilities; 15% of all staff have disabilities including three of their fitness instructors. All staff receive disability equity training and there is a strong emphasis on making anyone feel they are welcome.

The inclusive approach fills the centre with satisfied customers and Tasha quoted some comments from members: “It’s the mix that makes this one of the best places in the world”, “Disability and non-disability don’t matter here” and “We’re all just gym users”. And in an industry where staff receive long-service medals after six months it is great to learn that the staff at Aspire stay there years. So here is a place where a customer is a customer – disabled or non-disabled – and it works.

The rest of the day included sessions from Gordon Neale of Disability Sports Events and Nick Heywood of Parasport, who both gave knowledgeable presentations, and Alan Caron of London Wheelchair Rugby Club and Eddie Smith of Sheffield cerebral palsy football club who demonstrated how passion and dedication have helped them grow their respective clubs and in the process have themselves gone from being volunteers to securing funding for their now full-time posts.

My conclusion from the day was there really shouldn’t be that much difference between the successful techniques used to attract able-bodied or disabled people into sport and I probably agree with Stewart Lucas when he says that one of the barriers lies with disability sport itself.  These barriers must be challenged and meanwhile we must develop a network where people can learn best practice and where mainstream sport can learn how to become inclusive.


Svend Elkjaer is with the Sports Marketing Network


The Leisure Review, August 2008



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Of the 10.8 million disabled people in the UK:

• 9 million are deaf or hard of hearing
• 2 million have a visual impairment
• 400,000 are wheelchair users
• 1.2 million have learning difficulties
• around 1 in 3 people will experience mental health problems every year
• 9 million people have arthritis

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