South African community-based physical activity programmes for adults with disabilities: A success story
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wheelchair athlete trains on a track
A community-based activity programme for persons with disabilities in South Africa aims to provide people with acquired disabilities with skills and attitudes that would improve their functional abilities, independence and health.

South Africa is one of the most human rights based countries in the world in terms of policies and legislation, yet people with disabilities remain a marginalised community. People with disabilities make up approximately 5.1% of the population. Yet, according to the South African Human Rights Commission, continue to lack access to adequate health care, basic education and have little prospect in terms of securing employment.

This is exacerbated by the socio-economic divides where economically poor communities are affected more in times of environmental disasters or health crises, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic. It is in these communities where the need for self-help and support for people with disabilities are most acute.

Although South Africans with disabilities face many challenges in their daily lives in terms of personal, environmental, societal and program barriers, physical activity has proven to be an effective vehicle in improving people’s quality of life. The benefits of physical activity are vast and, according to the WHO, include lower rates of chronic conditions, healthier body mass and composition, improved cardiovascular and muscular fitness and reduced risk of fractures. In persons with disabilities, across artificial divides of race, class and gender, it also helps to reduce stigma, improves mood and enjoyment through social interaction.

This initiative grew out of a PhD study. The researcher observed that people with acquired disabilities were not coping with their disabilities once discharged back into their communities. This is mainly due to the lack of support received from healthcare services.

This inspired the researcher to stand in the gap and develop a program and intervention that would give people with disabilities opportunities to work on their abilities using physical activity and structured exercise within their community. This collectively addresses and reduces some of the barriers that people with disabilities face in being physically active in terms of the environment, personal and program barriers.

 The program started in a small economically impoverished community in the Western Cape (Macassar), South Africa. The group started with five adults with spinal cord injuries and they got together bi-weekly to work on their abilities.

The aim was to provide people with skills and attitudes that would improve their functional abilities, independence and health, and also reduce the burden on the health care system. The group has been operating since its inception in 2015.

When the intervention ended, the group was adopted by Bridging Abilities, a non-profit company. The group has since grown to approximately 24 people and now includes people with various disabilities (congenital and acquired). The initiative has also expanded into other communities, in partnership with ChangeAbility, a non-profit organisation, which assists in offering social support as well.

Participants are provided with basic exercise equipment, a venue that is accessible in a safe location, a suitable program at no cost, and training of local group members and volunteers on scientific exercise.

Initially the researcher, also a health care worker, attended every session, to make sure that correct principles were followed for safe exercise. Gradually, the group took ownership.

The group has shown that a community based physical activity group is indeed possible by taking ownership of their own health, supporting one another within the group, socialising and enjoying one another’s company as they exercise. One group member, who has a C4-C6 incomplete spinal cord injury states:

“I was very weak, and the exercises helped to strengthen me as well as improve my mood. I became a lot more positive about life. I did not want to be around people and did not want to face the challenges it presented.  I now look forward to the sessions and I keep encouraging people to join the group. I even approach the local radio station to advertise the group."

The presence of strong leaders within the group, to encourage, motivate and support people when needed is a golden nugget for continued participation.

Supportive family members and spouses also play important roles, as they are the vehicle -in a very literal sense- that drives the person to the group and picks up other members on the way. As one group member puts it:

“To be disabled was big adaptation for me, but with the support of my family, especially my wife, I realised it was not the end of my road. It was a start to a new life with new people, a new family.”

The group has established partnerships in the local community, which breaks down stigmas and stereotypes. One example is the local supermarket who invites the group to manage a gift wrapping station over the festive season. All proceeds go to Bridging Abilities as a contribution to attend a wheelchair race in George. Our group thus remains focussed as a community project but we try to avoid becoming an isolated unit.

The challenges that remain are finding appropriate public and private institutions to partner with. This is necessary so that more community based groups can be established. We require more accessible buildings, and opportunities for people with disabilities to access sport and leisure that are suitable and affordable.      

Although we are locally based organisation, we believe that this model is replicable in the broader South African context in order to harness golden nuggets that overcomes issues and challenges in South African community-based physical activity programmes for adults with disabilities.

Dr. Francois Cleophas is a senior lecturer in sport history at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. His focus field is community sport histories with a special emphasis on physical culture. He has published over 30 articles in peer reviewed journals, seven book chapters and one edited volume. His forthcoming book publication: Critical Reflections on Physical Culture at the Edges of Empire, is a collection of essays from international scholars that hones in on physical culture practices in marginalised settings.

Dr Candace Vermaak is a lecturer at the Sport Science Department, Stellenbosch University. Her field of interest include disability, sport, recreation and rehabilitation. She has been involved in the disability sector since 2003. Her background and expertise come from coaching Western Province Goalball teams and being a representative on disability sport committees, to completing a Masters in Adapted Physical Activity and starting up her own NPC (creating physical activity opportunities for persons with disabilities) and working in rehabilitation (health and wellness) at the Western Cape Rehabilitation Centre and ChangeAbility (NPO). Her passion is to help people achieve health and wellness using physical activity as a catalyst.


South Africa
Does not apply
Sustainable Development Goals
10 – Reduced inequalities
Target Group
People with Disabilities

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