Dance, disability and quality of life
Dance, disability and quality of life
At the Step Change Studios, Rashmi Becker provides dance classes at a community level for all ages and abilities.
In the UK, 1 in 5 people have a disability; yet disabled adults are twice as likely as non-disabled adults to be physically inactive. Activity levels for disabled and non-disabled children are similar when they first start school but the gap widens more significantly by the time they are 16 (52% compared with 72%). Disabled children are twice as likely to be lonely compared to their non-disabled peers – and these figures do not account for the pandemic.
The importance of physical literacy is widely recognised. Nine in ten parents of disabled children say their child’s physical activity is important to them. Yet, less than half of parents with disabled children feel they have enough support to help their child to be active. Worrying about getting hurt, how they look and not knowing what to do stops many disabled children being active.
For as long as I can remember I have felt strongly about the benefits of physical activity for physical and mental health. Growing up, I participated in different sport, but have always been passionate about dance. I have an older disabled brother who has severe autism and a visual impairment. He is non-verbal, and, growing up, I remember how he loved music and movement. As a child, this helped him manage his anxiety and express his personality, and was a way for us to play, communicate and connect.
As an adult, I continued to dance, but also developed a career working for the UK government, and the health and social care sector. During this time, I became acutely aware of the sedentary lifestyles of many disabled people in care settings or excluded from mainstream participation in schools.
I wanted to help address social inequalities and barriers to participation, and support disabled people to be active through dance, so I established Step Change Studios. We provide dance at a community level for all ages and abilities (mental, physical, and sensory). A core part of our work is bringing dance to where people are - providing dance in a wide range of settings including education, healthcare social care, and in the community – and now, in people’s homes via technology.
Dance is particularly accessible as it transcends language, promotes self-expression and brings people together. The benefits that our dance participants report include improved confidence, coordination, concentration, creativity, and communication, as well as a reduced sense of isolation and increased independence. Many people we work with have communication difficulties, but the sensory experience of dance – the physical movement, the rhythm and pulses of the music, the connection with others, and the use of sensory props – enables people to communicate through dance. This then translates into their wider world building a stronger sense of self.
The basis for everything we do is fun. We want dancing to make people happy, as this is the gateway to other critical factors, such as building trust. The first hurdle with much of our work is overcoming people’s fears about taking part. For example, some people have never travelled on their own, so we may use community volunteers to support people from train stations to the dance venue. Getting people to take that first step is critical: their very first contact with you and how you engage and communicate with them can make a difference between them moving forward or turning away.
People’s apprehensions can present in different ways. Some people may demonstrate frustration with themselves or other people. Key to addressing this is to look behind the behaviour and understand what is driving this. We find that continuously emphasising dancing for pleasure and promoting enjoyment is important in defusing people’s anxieties. Over time, people to start to connect, make friends and become more confident and independent.
While I stress the priority of fun in our work, it is important to balance this with challenge. We introduce different goals for our participants, such as working towards a dance exam, competition or public performance. Being ambitious for people creates a positive culture that encourages hope and self-belief.
The impact of the pandemic
The global pandemic has exacerbated social inequalities. Disabled people have been disproportionately affected. The impact on mental health resulting from isolation and the ongoing uncertainty have been widely reported.
Government restrictions have often been slow to recognise disabled people’s needs. The third sector has had to step in to adapt government requirements and to ensure exceptions are made for people that may struggle to socially distance and have different communication needs; for example, we know masks can pose an issue for people who might lip read.
The pandemic has highlighted that it has never been more important to look after our physical and mental health. When COVID-19 began to impact the UK and all real-life dance had to stop, our dance participants asked for virtual sessions. Teaching and communicating through the medium of a screen has required a complete re-think in how we teach: for example for people with sight loss, we have needed to focus much more on clarity of voice and visual language, but also other cues such as clapping the timing of the movements in place of being able to physically support people to learn. We have also had to check the accessibility of different systems, such as whether screen readers work with virtual platforms, and providing alternate formats for registering.
One thing I quickly realised with our online delivery is that alongside dancing, people value a regular opportunity to come together in challenging times. One participant said the online dance programme has ‘kept me sane during lockdown’. We cannot underestimate the need to look after our mental health during the pandemic and just dancing and moving to music together (even virtually) - can lift our spirits alongside our heart rate.
As well as providing inclusive dance, I am a committed disability advocate. Making sure the voices and experiences of disabled people are heard and acted on remains critical. Early in the pandemic, when it was clear that many disabled people were not receiving the protection and support they needed, I engaged media to report on the issues. Advocacy is vital in ensuring disabled people are not side-lined by decision-makers that impact their lives. The third sector is playing a critical role in raising awareness of the challenges disabled people are facing and influencing policy and practice.
Diversity and inclusion are not just about grassroots participation. Disabled people must have access to opportunities at every level. In the UK just 3% of board members in sport representative bodies are disabled. We need genuine commitment to change at the top if we are to achieve real integration and recognition for all people and all abilities.
Dr. Rashmi Becker is the Founder of inclusive dance company Step Change Studios. She is also a Board Member of Sport England. She holds a Doctorate in Psychiatry from the University of Cambridge where her research focused on intellectual disability.