When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, accessibility to recreation became an increasingly apparent issue.
But it was an even bigger issue for those with disabilities who often rely on recreation services — not only for physical activity but also a sense of community. And as the pandemic — hopefully — is in the midst of winding down, it's worth a look at what can be done moving forward to improve accessibility.
Shayna Stock, the coordinator of Community Wellbeing & Inclusion with the City of Regina, is one person trying to accomplish that task.
When the Regina City Council decided to do some consultation on adapted recreation and the accessibility of said recreation, Stock was tasked with overseeing a public survey, as well as outreach and focus groups, to get a better idea of where the city could go.
The consultations resulted in an approved preliminary report that will lead to $200,000 annually in adapted sport and recreation grants for Regina’s community based organizations to improve activities and facilities more accessible, making the one-time grants now annual. The grants and work done by the City will provide an opportunity for the adapted recreation industry.
“I think that this has been in the works and probably needed to happen prior to the pandemic, but I do think the pandemic kind of highlighted some of those needs within the community,” said Stock.
Another result to come out of the City’s consultation is the establishment of one-on-one support, for those who are experiencing barriers to recreation guidance to help them meet their needs and overcome said barriers.
“I think it’s pretty unique in Saskatchewan,” said Stock. “The new inclusion support services are really exciting, and I think will be a game changer for a lot of people to have that personal connection to someone at the city that they can talk to and get person-centred support, which currently doesn't exist.”
According to Stock, one positive to come out of the pandemic for recreation groups has been the necessity to adapt.
“It forced us to get creative with our programming. We've been offering some of our programming digitally or in a hybrid format, which has made it more accessible to some people. So I think just pushing organizations like the city to try those different ways of program delivery has been helpful,” said Stock.
One of those programs was What’s Your Style, an inclusive dance class adapted to the needs of people with a disability — that was offered to kids in different age categories from four-years-old up, which was delivered online via Zoom.
Stock notes that many programs were cancelled throughout the pandemic and when programs were running — online or even hybrid — attendance was lower. The added barrier of the pandemic and the reality of people with disabilities often being immunocompromised definitely played a role.
“I think the pandemic definitely highlighted the need for social connections and the need for us to kind of be building strong community ties between people and providing opportunities for connection,” said Stock.
As a person with a disability, that statement hits close to home for Regina’s John Loeppky.
“Speaking in my history as an athlete, the social perspectives is highly tied to the activity itself, because when I'm going to say a wheelchair basketball practice with the team that I played with for about a decade in Saskatoon, I'm going there to meet a community of other disabled people just as much as I am putting a ball in a hoop,” said Loeppky.
“Now, did I have that understanding when I was 11? I would say no. Do I have that understanding now at 28? I would say yes,” Loeppky said. “So I think when we're talking about recreation for disability, we're talking just as much about the social aspect as we are about the sporting aspect.”
As for what the future holds, Loeppky is curious what can be learned from the events of the last 24 months. A project on his mind is bridging the gap between parasport and more accessible recreation. He notes that while trading a physical barrier for a different, wider barrier – such as internet access – highlights the reality of people with disabilities being disproportionately poor compared to able-bodied people.
“I think what we can take from this is, where did that digital space support us in our mission? Where can hybrid exist and where can these conversations continue to develop?” said Loeppky.
Stock admits that the role she’s in is exciting because she’s able to do work that has an impact and she’s looking forward to seeing what’s to come.
“I’m really excited that the City of Regina is moving in the direction that it is around accessible recreation. I think there's lots more work to do, but I think we have a really great opportunity to work on rebuilding trust with people with disabilities, having more direct communication and providing more options to make recreation more accessible to people.”