Sue Napper is a founder of the registered charity Disabled Holiday Information.
Sue and her husband Frank started the organisation 12 years ago. After being unable to find information on accessible activities for Frank as a wheelchair user, they decided to share their own experiences online.
Today, Sue, Frank and their dedicated team review accessible attractions and across the UK.
According to charity worker Sue Napper, health and leisure centres aren’t doing enough for people with mobility issues. Here she reveals the most accessible regions of the UK, and how people who were inspired by the Paralympics Games are being put off sport by poor facilities.
Disabled Holiday Information
When it comes to activities for people with disabilities, Sue has years of experience. Over the years, the charity has helped people with easy access needs take part in a range of activities – including some hair-raising sports like paragliding and kite buggying.
“Disabled Holiday Information has been in existence for 12 years. We started off primarily looking at holiday information for people with easy access needs. We now focus on places to go, things to do and things to take part in, from falconry and canoeing, to gliding and paragliding.
“Recently a member of our team went to look at wheelchair rugby, which isn’t provided by many leisure facilities. We review anything and everything, even extreme sports like kite buggying in Cornwall.”
What makes Sue’s charity special, she believes, is the fact that every member of her team has first-hand knowledge of accessibility issues.
“What’s unusual about ourselves is that we’re an awareness-led organisation, so our committee, our researchers and our trustees are all comprised of people who have easy-access needs themselves, or have cared for someone with a disability. It’s quite unusual because a lot of the time organisations are manned by people with good accessibility on behalf of people that don’t.”
The Paralympics Legacy
For Sue, being involved in sports is hugely beneficial for everybody – whether you’re able-bodied or not. She wants to see more leisure centres supporting sports for people with disabilities.
“The benefits of playing sport for a person with a disability are exactly the same as they are for anybody else. They get a chance to interact socially and a chance to increase their physical fitness. It’s a sense of achievement, so that goals can be obtained. People with disabilities get all the normal things that anybody would feel they would benefit from sport,” she says.
Much work is still needed to include people with disabilities in heath and leisure centres.
“The trouble is that when people go out and do these things it’s not always possible because the facilities at health and leisure centres aren’t accessible.
“If you’re a person with easy access needs and you want to go swimming or use the gym, quite often the lack of facilities prevent you from joining in. A lot of the time, things that are accessible to the rest of your family or to your friends are just not accessible to you.”
Following the Paralympics, Sue and her team were optimistic that sporting activities would be more accessible for everybody. But sadly, says Sue, that often this hasn’t been the case.
“After the Paralympics everything looked fantastic, everybody thought ‘great, it would be wonderful to go out and do this stuff’. The reality for ordinary Joe Bloggs is that there are a huge number of obstacles still in the way.”
What Should Sports Centres Offer?
The team at Disabled Holiday Information visits sports and activities centres around the country, using a checklist of facilities they expect leisure centres to provide for visitors with disabilities.
“We go out to look at these places in teams of two or three. There will always be a wheelchair user, and we try and look at aspects that affect those with visual and other sensory impairments as well. Sometimes someone with cognitive impairments will come along too.
“One of us will have a tick list and they look at what facilities are available and what’s required for people taking part. The list will vary depending on the type of facility, but for a leisure centre it will be a list of all the things someone with easy access needs might require in order to be able to take part in any of the things that are on offer.”
Sue and the other Disabled Holiday Information researchers leave no stone unturned.
“We assess whether attention has been paid to the fact that someone who has a visual impairment might be visiting. For example, one of our team members has a guide dog. She can’t use her local leisure centre on her own because there’s nowhere for her to leave her dog.
“Our list has been compiled by the people with easy access needs themselves, so it’s got all the things they need, from their perspective,” she says.
Small Things Make Big Difference
Changing facilities are one of the biggest areas needing improvement, according to Sue.
“Changing facilities in sports and leisure centres are often segregated. It might be that if there is a easy access changing room there, it’s the wrong end of the building – it’s not where your mates are.
“Another issue is that there may not be somewhere suitable if you want to get changed on your own. Sometimes there’s a presumption that you’ll have someone with you to help, but actually if you’re a spinal injury sufferer and you have good upper mobility you’ll want to do as much of it on your own as you can.”
Even when the right facilities are in place, a lack of awareness means that they’re not used effectively.
“Sometimes almost everything that’s needed is there, it’s just one small consideration that’s been overlooked. Often it’s very small things, but they can have a massive impact,” says Sue.
“Often in a sport centre you’ll have one designated accessible changing facility. They tend to have quite a lot of space in them because that’s the way they’re designed, but it becomes the storeroom. You can’t actually access it because it’s full of all the mops and the buckets and other equipment. That’s a major issue, it sounds a small trifling one, but it’s not,” she adds.
Changing Rooms are a Problem
With more and more people with disabilities choosing sports as a way to make friends and keep fit, there’s even more need for leisure centres to get easy access right. A lack of facilities mean that people with accessibility needs may even stop doing sports altogether.
“There tends to be just one or two disabled changing rooms in most sports centres. Again, there’s a presumption that there’s very few people out there who want to these facilities, but of course that’s not true. This is potentially an even bigger problem now because of the GP Exercise Referral Programme,” says Sue.
“This is a major project to get people that are older or have easy access needs out and get them fitter. They can be referred for the 16-week scheme, where they only pay a very small amount towards the fee. Following that, they often get a reduced rate towards the normal fee.
“I think the programme works fairly well in principle, but the trouble is that a lot of people who are referred then find out the facilities aren’t easy to use and they don’t always stay the course.”
Searching High and Low for Suitable Lockers
Often, leisure centres and the like will try to use a one-size-fits-all approach to their facilities. And that causes problems for anyone who doesn’t fit the mould.
“Lockers aren’t suitable because they’re usually a standard size. This means no thought has gone into the fact that somebody with a disability might need more space to store things. You may have far more stuff that requires putting away because of your easy access needs. People have told us they’ve had to use two or three lockers before. There’s just no thought behind it.”
Sue said she hasn’t seen any mid-level lockers that allow for easy wheelchair access.
“Mid-level lockers would be a real help because sometimes the only free lockers might be low down, which wheelchair users can’t access, or high up where they just can’t reach.”
We All Need Easy Access
At some point in our lives accessibility issues will affect everybody – so easy access isn’t just a minority issue, it’s something we should all be pushing for, says Sue.
“Something I really feel strongly about when you’re talking about easy access, is that it actually applies to everyone. It’s from the point in your life where you may be in a buggy as a child, to the other end of your life, where you just may walk with a stick or you may not be able to get about as easily or you may need to sit down a lot. It’s everybody’s life. So making places more accessible is better for everybody.
“It’s the only way to think about it really because if everybody did that, they’d stop seeing it as a minority and start seeing it as a necessary part of everybody’s life.”
UK Leisure Industry needs to think Outside the Box
According to Sue, some areas in the UK are better than others when it comes to accessible leisure facilities. Every sports centre and leisure club in the country should be thinking outside the box on easy access issues.
“Scotland and the South West of England as a rule seem to have better accessibility than other areas.
“We recently went to a big leisure complex in Dumfries called DG One, and they had thought totally outside the box with everything. One of the swimming pools starts off level and lowers as you use it, they’d made sure the Jacuzzi areas were accessible, and they’d even thought about the height of the sockets, hair dryers and shelving.”
For Sue, people’s attitudes towards disabled access are key to improving things.
“They had more than one changing facility and their attitude was generally better - they were expecting people with easy access needs to come and join in.
“Some of the other European countries have much better access than the UK, but I think we’re better than a lot of places. We don’t expect people with disabilities to live in cupboards and never come out, but there’s a long way to go.”
Better Facilities Mean People are More Active
Sue is convinced that more people would become involved in disabled sports if leisure centre facilities were easier to access.
“There’s absolutely no doubt that better facilities in leisure centres and gyms would get more people with easy access needs involved with sport. And there’s more publicity around it at the moment too, with more interest in spinal injuries units, the GP referral scheme and a focus on rehabilitating people from the army who have been injured. That’s why we try to promote activities and places that are accessible.”
This interview was sponsored by Total Locker Service, experts in supplying lockers and other secure storage solutions for all sorts of needs. They provide an excellent range of accessible lockers for disabled changing rooms in sports and leisure centres and gyms. Contact the team on 01284 749211 for more details.