An opportunity was missed during the COVID-19 pandemic to make participation in sport and activity more accessible for disabled people, several leading disability equality groups have told ESPN.
Disabled people were disproportionately affected by COVID-19, according to research conducted by the disability charity Scope, with 48% of people with disabilities in the U.K. becoming less active since March 2020.
A further study by Special Olympics reflected that around 42% of their registered athletes with intellectual disabilities, approximately 2.5 million people globally, lost access to its sports programmes in 2020.
While social restrictions and health concerns were significant factors, with many disabled people and those with long-term health conditions shielding during the pandemic, statistics from Sport England's Active Lives survey showed that there was no recovery in their participation levels when restrictions were eased in the U.K. in March 2021.
But with non-disabled people seeing participation figures return towards pre-pandemic levels as facilities began to reopen, there is concern that the COVID-19 pandemic has widened the existing inequalities in grassroots sport.
"The progress we were making has stalled, if not gone backwards," Phil Friend, vice chair of Activity Alliance -- a leading voice for disability sport in the U.K. -- told ESPN ahead of the International Day of Disabled Persons on Friday Dec. 3.
"When COVID hit, it hit everybody. But the impact on disabled people seems to be more profound when you look at the data, and that seems to suggest the exclusion of people with disabilities is over and above what you might have expected. You would have thought the figures between groups would have been broadly the same, but they are clearly not."
Lawrence Orr, of disability charity Scope, told ESPN: "We know that disabled people are keen to get back into sport and exercise but there isn't the opportunity there. There are too many barriers in the way.
"There are multiple reasons for that, but the main one is access. Cost, transport, parking; all these complexities feed into the everyday barriers people with disabilities face, and it feels like that all plays out when it comes to getting access to sport and leisure. Are there enough accessible facilities? Even if there are, how are people adapting their sessions to make it inclusive?
"This is something that has been chronically underinvested in and is a secondary thought for too many people. I think there was an opportunity to do things differently on the back of the pandemic and invest in this space, and I think we missed that opportunity."
Special Olympics, the world's largest provider of sports activities to people with intellectual disabilities, has experienced a "plight" in participation figures since the start of the pandemic, according to David Evangelista, the president and managing director of Special Olympics Europe Eurasia.
The organisation has placed a greater emphasis on virtual offerings due to COVID-19 restrictions and health fears -- people with intellectual difficulties are six times more likely to die from COVID-19.
"Special Olympics takes return to activity very seriously," Evangelista told ESPN. "We understand that the only way to get athletes back is to do so safely - there are no shortcuts.
"Special Olympics across the world has safety as the number one priority and there will be no return until those in-person activities can be done in the safest possible way. We need the global community to help with this as well.
"We have put together a range of digital platforms that have allowed athletes across the world to take to the pitch, take to the pool, take to the court. This is our way of fighting back. We've shifted activities online to a more digital space because if we can't meet physically, we have to allow our athletes to demonstrate their abilities in any way that is safe."
In response to a request for comment from ESPN, the U.K. government highlighted the launch of Sport England's 10-year sport participation and inclusion strategy that aims to "adapt and rebuild" grassroots sport and activity from the "huge disruption" caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a statement to ESPN, the chief executive of Sport England Tim Hollingsworth said: "The pandemic has been especially difficult for disabled people and those with long-term health conditions. Even before COVID, disabled people were twice as likely to be inactive than others. While that was starting to shift in a positive direction, the pandemic created a new set of barriers for disabled people who want to play sport or get active.
"That's why making it accessible and welcoming to all groups in society is at the heart of our mission over the next decade. However, creating an inclusive sport and physical activity sector means everyone involved must recognise the urgency for change.
"From sport clubs, fitness classes and gyms, to the national bodies that govern sport, we must all accelerate efforts to remove barriers and help more disabled people find and engage with opportunities to get active. Until everyone can get active in the way that works for them, the work is not done."
Through Sport England's Tackling Inequalities Fund, over £40 million in the U.K has been invested into supporting people most disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, including disabled people and people with long-term health conditions.
However, several disability groups within the U.K. are frustrated that more was not done to address those inequalities prior to the easing of lockdown, which they say set the group further back once facilities reopened.
"There was a lot of exciting things done around virtual stuff but I sense that disability wasn't included in that, and that's very sad," Phil Friend of Activity Alliance told ESPN. "There was a great opportunity for organisations to think, 'Who is missing here? Who could we be more inviting to and inclusive towards?'
"I think there was an opportunity during the pandemic for facilities to encourage disabled people back. For messaging that said, 'We are open, we are here for you.' But this is the problem. Very often we are forgotten."