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InstructAbility – Engaging disabled people in the UK fitness industry Across England

  • InstructAbility
  • InstructAbility Team
  • InstructAbility Graduate

InstructAbility, currently funded by Sport England, provides disabled people with gym instructor training and qualifications followed by a voluntary industry work placement where they work to encourage more disabled people in the local community to participate in fitness and exercise sessions. The wider aim of the project is to contribute positively to social change by challenging the negative perceptions of disabled people in society.

How did it start?

The Aspire National Training Centre (ANTC) is an exemplar of inclusive fitness: not only are almost a third of our members disabled, but more than half of our gym instructors are, too. Aspire recognised that the percentage of disabled members in the majority of other UK fitness facilities remained disproportionately low and also identified active discrimination against disabled people seeking work in the fitness industry.

In 2010 Aspire set about designing a programme to create more accessible opportunities to tackle the under-representation of disabled people in the fitness industry. Aspire approached YMCAfit to deliver the training element of the InstructAbility pilot programme and worked with a range of leisure operators to set up industry work placements. In 2011 – 2012 four courses were delivered in London funded by the ‘Mayors Legacy Fund’. In 2013 Sport England awarded Aspire a three year grant to roll out the InstructAbility programme nationally.


The objectives of the project are to:

  1. Increase the number of disabled people qualifying as gym instructors by delivering training in accessible venues, with an appropriate format and resources as well as financial support.
  2.  Increase the number of disabled people working in the fitness industry by providing work placements where disabled gym instructors can demonstrate their skills, develop experience and challenge others negative preconceived ideas to enhance their employability.
  3. Increase the number of disabled people participating in fitness activities by creating more role models who can make the gym a more welcoming and attractive environment for other disabled people.
  4. Support the leisure industry to become more inclusive by raising awareness of disability amongst fitness staff, managers and customers.

Why is this project important?

InstructAbility was born out of Aspire’s desire to share the good practice of inclusive leisure at ANTC with other industry operators. The aim was to influence other leisure providers to create more opportunities for participation and employment of disabled people. In addition to operating ANTC, Aspire is a charity providing practical support to people living with spinal cord injury. Its project and programmes enable people to lead fulfilled and independent lives in their homes, with their families, in work places and in leisure time The InstructAbility programme is therefore an extension of Aspire’s work as an inclusive community leisure provider and as a spinal injury charity striving to improve leisure, health and employment outcomes for disabled people.

Project resources

Initially Aspire invested funds to set up the pilot project and manage the first year of the programme. A grant from Sport England’s enables unemployed, disabled people to access the programme free of charge. The funding covers costs associated with delivering the training for the YMCAfit Level 2 CYQ qualification in Gym Instructing, and Level 3 CYQ qualification in Exercise and Disability, Aspire community outreach training, and an Aspire co-ordinator to provide student mentoring support and organise work placements.

Project results

The key outcomes being achieved are:
1. Transforming the lives of disabled people who have become instructors by increasing exercise participation, enhancing confidence/self-esteem and improving job prospects.

“InstructAbility has uncovered my passion and has taught me to believe in myself. It has given me a sense of purpose and shown me that nothing is impossible. Although I will always have an impairment, I know for sure it is no longer in charge and does not dictate my life.” (Gym Instructor with Cerebral Palsy)

2.Working with leisure operators to enhance staff awareness of disability and improve service for disabled people.

“Having Tom as part of the team gave us an opportunity to evaluate how our facility could accommodate customers and staff with disabilities. After a short period of time it became apparent that current members were recommending friends who previously had not felt they could use the facilities.” (Fitness Manager)

3. Supporting disabled people to access fitness facilities/activities.

“I find training with another wheelchair user easier as we are on the same level, and being a wheelchair user himself Anthony knows my limits and capabilities. He has shown me different ways of doing the exercises to achieve the same results that I would never have thought of myself. Working with Anthony is a true inspiration. I have nothing but admiration for his determination. It makes me think if he can do it so can I!” (Disabled client)

Some Statistics:

•100 disabled people have qualified as gym instructors.
• 50 students have so far graduated after undertaking work placements in over 40 different leisure facilities, contrubuting to more than 10,000 hours of voluntary service.
• Over 40% of graduates have been offered employment by independent gyms and with organisations such as Fitness First, Virgin Active, YMCA, GLL, Everyone Active, Places for People and Fusion.
•The InstructAbility programme has been accessed by disabled people with a range of impairments including those with spinal cord injury, spina bifida, cerebral palsy, limb loss, visual and hearing impairment, loss of function caused by stroke, brain injury, osteoarthritis and nuero-muscular conditions and mental health difficulties.
•InstructAbility graduates include: Individuals who have acquired an injury through sport (working closely with the RFU injured Players Foundation); Performers and coaches of disability sports such as wheelchair athletics, tennis, rugby and basketball players, including GB squad and Paralympians; Injured armed service personnel transitioning from the armed forces.

InstructAbility has been recognised as an innovative and successful project by a series of awards:
• London 2012 Inspiremark
• UKActive ‘Spark of Innovation’ Flame Award 2012
• Big Society Award 2013

Gymtopia Comment

Gymtopia founders have followed the amazing work of the Aspire charity for many years. Aspire’s purpose is to provide practical support to the 40,000 people living with a spinal cord injury in the UK. The InstructAbility programme is a great example of how an individual’s life may be irreversibility different following a spinal cord injury, but can still remain rich with new experiences and a strong sense of purpose.

Project by:Aspire

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Location: Across England
Start date: January 2011
Status: Ongoing
Impact: National
Submitted: 19 August 2014
Charity: Aspire