The head of a UK leisure industry body – a government disability adviser – has been forced to explain why his organisation wrote to the prime minister but failed to ask for action to address disabled people’s barriers to physical activity.
Ukactive represents the UK fitness industry, and its chief executive, Huw Edwards (pictured), is the Department for Work and Pensions’ disability sector champion for the leisure industry, with the task of fighting for the rights of disabled consumers.
But the pre-election letter from ukactive to the prime minister – and the leaders of the four other largest Westminster parties – makes no mention of disabled people or disability, other than pointing out that inactivity is the “fourth greatest cause of disease and disability” in the UK.
Only 13 months ago, a report from the disability sports organisation Activity Alliance – which ukactive supported – found that four-fifths of disabled people surveyed would like to be more active, but nearly half feared losing their benefits if they took more exercise.
More than a third of those surveyed had either had their own benefits sanctioned or removed because of being physically active, or knew someone this had happened to.
But despite this report, there was no mention in the ukactive letter of disabled people or disability benefits, including personal independence payment (PIP), even though the letter aims to push the Conservatives and other political parties to amend their manifesto policies on health and wellbeing.
The nearest it comes to demanding measures to address the barriers facing disabled people is when it calls for action to support older people to access the physical activity sector.
Ukactive was formerly known as the Fitness Industry Association.
The letter was sent on ukactive’s behalf by its chair, the disabled peer and retired Paralympian Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson.
She insisted that it was “absolutely not a deliberate omission to forget about disabled people” and that there was no pressure “at all” from within ukactive not to mention disabled people and the PIP issue in the letter.
She told Disability News Service: “I could have put 20 other things in there as well. The work I do at ukactive is about everybody being active and disabled people are part of that.
“I could have written a 40-page letter to the leaders of the main political parties with my personal views over a number of areas I work on such as access to trains, hate crime and universal credit.
“This letter was written in my role as chair of ukactive and is part of an ongoing discussion about how people can be active.”
She added: “It absolutely was not any kind of deliberate omission. It was just a judgement call from me.”
She said the team at ukactive had been talking in recent months to government departments about the issues in the letter, but she did not know whether that had included DWP and the PIP issue.
A ukactive spokesperson said in a statement: “ukactive represents its members on a broad range of agenda items, and disability and inclusivity are completely integral to these.
“The calls we made to government last week are practical policy requests which are inclusive of disabled people.
“We want all major political parties to commit to invest in the physical activity sector to support more people to be active.
“From regenerating the high street through physical activity, to opening schools as community hubs over the summer, improving accessibility to active travel and social prescribing, these policy calls represent all members of society.
“We continue to work with government and our partner agencies, Activity Alliance, Sense and Disability Rights UK, across a range of issues to reduce the barriers and create more opportunities for disabled people to be active.
“ukactive has played a key role in supporting the recommendations from Activity Alliance’s report, The Activity Trap, which found that many disabled people fear that by being active they may be seen as ‘too independent’ for a disabled person and could lose access to the benefits they need such as PIP.
“Through programmes such as Everyone Can, ukactive is also working with cross-sector disability champions to help improve services for disabled people who want to undertake more physical activity.”
Despite the statement, the letter is likely to call into question the role of DWP’s disability sector champions, and whether they are there to fight for the rights of disabled people or instead to secure access to ministers for the industries they represent.
In September, disabled researcher and activist Ellen Clifford secured an admission from DWP that it had no idea how many of its sector champions were disabled people themselves.
She said then that the initiative was “meaningless”, with no evidence of “tangible outcomes” from their appointments.
She added: “The failure to hold any equalities monitoring data on the champions further confirms the idea that these are purely tokenistic appointments created to give the impression of progress while the government continues its deliberate retrogression of disabled people’s rights.”
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