The Paralympics showed the world how impairment is no barrier to sporting achievement.
Now Move into Sport, a pioneering health initiative in County Durham, is launching a new series of beginners’ courses to help people with disabilities and their carers to get active and improve their health and fitness.
Two brothers have an ambitious New Year’s resolution - to get people across the region playing Boccia.
The Paralympic sport is becoming increasingly popular amongst the disabled and able-bodied alike.
Initially designed for people with cerebral palsy, Boccia – pronounced Bot-cha - is now played by a diverse group of people as it is completely inclusive and accessible to everyone – from paraplegics who use head devices to launch the ball in pursuit of the jack, to the elderly who can use a ramp, children with autism or ADHD and carers, who can join in with the fun and get a bit of exercise too.
As a sports coach at Brandon & Byshottes Table Tennis Club, Paul Henderson, is always on the go. Despite having dyspraxia, which affects his balance and coordination, Paul discovered a natural talent for table tennis and plays in a league as well as teaching others.
But for his brother Andrew Hardman, 38, who has Spina Bifida and hydrocephalus or fluid on the brain, keeping active remains a challenge and as a result he became concerned over his health and fitness.
Searching to find activities that Andrew could take part in, Paul turned to Boccia and trained as a coach so that he could deliver sessions at the table tennis club too.
The first course attracted a diverse range of people and now a second round is due to begin in January.
Boccia is just one of a range of recreational disability sports courses being offered by County Durham’s Move into Sport programme in a major move to expand provision for people with disabilities and their carers - two groups identified as being at high risk of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease due to the barriers they face in finding suitable ways to exercise.
In the last two years, the programme, funded by Sport England and Durham County Council, has helped thousands of people to reintroduce activity back into their lives by providing free or low cost beginners courses in a wide range of sports and activities from the more traditional running, swimming and cycling, to dance, martial arts and rock climbing.
“Andrew was getting worried about his weight, but struggled to find ways of getting more active,” said Paul, 40, of Brandon, County Durham.
“He’d played a bit at college and so I decided to train as a Boccia coach and start sessions here at the table tennis club.
“It’s a sport anyone can join in with. From young to old, disabled or able-bodied. It’s just about the movement, participation and the social interaction with others.
“It gets him up and about and out of the house and he really enjoys it. It is a good sport for carers too. It is exercise for them, as they are walking around getting the balls and bending to pick them up.
“It is hard for carers to find the time to exercise themselves, when they are looking after someone full time.
“The social aspect is really important too and it’s a great way of meeting new people and also bringing people with disabilities and their carers closer together in a fun, relaxed environment.
“We had a wide range of people joining our first course and I hope more will come along in January and give it a go.”
Boccia courses are taking place across the county along with other disability courses including multi-sports, boxercise and dance.
Disability sports coach and Inclusive Sport Activator, Ben Baker, of Durham University, has seen first-hand the difference sport can make to people’s lives and is working with Move into Sport to encourage more people with learning difficulties back into sport.
“Sport is a huge confidence builder and it is so rewarding to see the difference in people from when they first turn up to a class and when they leave at the end,” he said.
Ben, 21, a keen hockey player who has represented the North East in the sport, coaches a number of disability sports including boxercise and fencing.
He said: “Boxercise is good as it can be adapted to a range of fitness levels. It is also a lot of fun, so you don’t realise how much you are exercising.”
All the disability sports classes are specially tailored to the needs of participants.
“People with both physical and learning disabilities have barriers to taking part in sports and activities and the result can be a sedentary lifestyle that is bad for their health,” Ben said.
“There may be issues with transportation, organising care, or lack of confidence. That is why it is important to offer classes specially tailored for their needs. Perhaps it can be arranging for someone to access a centre by a side door, so they don’t have to face the loud noises of a leisure centre, or having classes in small groups.
“These sessions are a great opportunity for people to start the New Year with something new and have fun and get fit at the same time.”
Catherine Rollo’s daughter Katie, 18, has autism and learning difficulties, and finding ways to keep her active is a constant challenge.
“Katie has not got the ability to keep herself fit and making sure she gets enough exercise and keeps healthy is one of my biggest worries,” said Catherine, of Newton Aycliffe.
“She finds it hard to coordinate herself quickly enough to keep her heart rate up enough to fat burn.
“Specialist disability courses are brilliant as the coaches, like Ben, can break their instructions down into steps she can follow. He also understands her need for routines.
“Sport has also been a great way to improve her confidence and help her learn a new skill.”
Andrew Power, physical activity manager for County Durham Sport, said: “Move into Sport funded by Sport England and Durham County Council works by delivering a range of projects in the community from running to rowing, dancing to table tennis which people can participate in either for free or at a very low cost, depending on the activity.”
There are now more than 60 Move into Sport providers throughout County Durham who are well on the way to delivering 270 beginner courses of recreational sports by early 2015.
For more information and to find a course near you visit http://www.countydurhamsport.com/physical_activity/move_into_sport/participants