“Participating in physical recreation is challenging when you are a young person with disability,” explains Shields. “Young people with disability told us the two main things that stop them being physically active are a lack of social support and a lack of inclusive programs.”
To address this problem, Professor Shields and her team developed a 12-week community-based physical activity program called FitSkills for young people with disability aged 13 to 30. The program matches a young person with disability with a peer mentor from the same locality. To imbue a peer relationship, the pair exercise together at their local gym twice a week for an hour.
The research was co-developed in partnership with Sport and Recreation Victoria, City of Boroondara, YMCA Victoria, Disability Sport & Recreation, Down Syndrome Victoria, Cerebral Palsy Support Network, Joanne Tubb Foundation and consumer representatives. Partner organisations contributed both cash and in-kind contributions to the project.
The program was enacted at 20 community gyms across metropolitan Melbourne. Importantly, with reasonable program adaptations, young people with complex disability (for example, intellectual disability, communication difficulties and/or epilepsy) were able to participate.
“Participation in exercise can improve the health and social connectedness of young people with disability and normalises disability for student mentors,” says Shields.
Participants showed their commitment to the program with high attendance rates and described how it helped them build an exercise routine, develop a sense of ‘normalcy’ and ‘belonging’ to their community, and for some, supported gains in independence.
“They said it provided the impetus, confidence and strategies to pursue continued involvement in physical activity, with many participants continuing to exercise with their mentor beyond the program.”
This project also led to a successful 2021 VicHealth Impact Research grant, which aims to make Victorian public gym facilities more accessible for young people with disability through practice change.