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Girls Get Active! is a project launched in 2021 by Misgav, a charity that supports learning disabled women  to find employment, voluntary roles, gain life skills and have fun playing sports, music and making art. 

Why was Girls Get Active! first created?  

Our organisation was already providing sport sessions for our audience, but things really changed for us through the pandemic as most of our learning-disabled audience are also clinically vulnerable and therefore were required to shield.

During lockdown we tried to help our disabled users stay active with remote fitness sessions, but we still found that all our users’ activity levels dropped and many users struggled with unhealthy weight gain.

This all contributed to a noticeable reduction in stamina and difficulty getting back into exercise again; when they first returned many users would not  be able to finish the sessions.

These setbacks were linked to an increase in mental health issues faced by our audience as some users were experiencing increased anxiety and found groups sessions to be too overwhelming, and as a result our staff found it difficult to run sessions smoothly.  

So, we revised our sessions to put more emphasis on fun and acknowledging users’ new challenges through encouragement with prizes and games.

All our staff went through additional training on how to handle challenging behaviour and how to spot mental health issues that need to be addressed with professional intervention.

In addition, we have worked with a clinical psychologist who helped us devise individual plans for users to help them with their stamina and get back to social settings.

Two females with learning difficulties pose for a photo on an athletics track, in a modified wheelchair

How important is it that exercise and activity is made as suitable as possible by organisations like yours?  

We work with users who have very diverse needs – some face challenged because of severe learning disabilities but no physical barriers, while others are moderately learning disabled but face significant barriers on account of physical disability.

We address these by providing one-to-one support in sessions which helps implement individual fitness plans, adapt exercises and make sure that users feedback is implemented instantly which prevents frustration and users losing interest in the session.

This is especially important with users who do no communicate verbally – our staff are trained to pick up on  non-verbal communication and to note it for other team members.

Sessional support staff provide continuity, they get to know the user they support well, and any handovers or changes are made smoothly as all individual needs and feedback information is logged on Salesforce CRM and through regular staff briefings. 

We work with women who require culturally sensitive provision including an all women staff and sessions, and support staff who understand dietary needs and cultural sensitivities on personal hygiene.

We also have many users for whom English is not a primary language and feel more comfortable if we are able to provide local support staff who speak their community language.  

A young woman in a wheelchair is excited while being active in a sports hall

In our social skills sessions with disabled users we put a lot of stress on understanding and accepting diversity within our user group and all our staff are given diversity training.

The cultural needs in the group have key points in common (e.g. women only setting) but users come from different communities and need to respect that others do things differently.  

Our sessions simply wouldn’t work for our audience if we didn’t consider their needs in this way. 

What would you say to other people thinking of starting their own group or changing something in their local areas?  

Make sure you’re tracking progress and enabling feedback loops within your sessions.  

Monitoring progress of each user is a process and can be time consuming for your team, but don’t take shortcuts, take the time at the start to make the tools work for your team and design the process with them.

We have designed our own monitoring tool with input from an external evaluation expert, but we made it simple to use and made sure the process is achievable. 

Because we are a grass-roots organisations led by carers, we are very close to our users and they feel comfortable giving us ongoing feedback.

We are very focussed on involving learning disabled women in design of our sessions and to have this as a formal yet accessible process; we have adapted surveys and ensured our support staff are trained to observe and record responses to sessions and any changes so we can ensure that the communication barriers are not a barrier for our users to have their views shaping our work. 

Find out more about Girls Get Active!