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26 Mar 2021

Moving Social Care: Why social workers could be the key to promoting physical activity for disabled people

Walking

‘Moving Social Care: Training the social workers of today and tomorrow in physical activity promotion’ – is one of the 31 projects selected for funding through our Open Funding Competition for 2020.

Led by Professor Brett Smith at Durham University, the project supports the integration of physical activity conversations into routine social care

Project partners include Social Work England, Sport England, social workers, disabled people, Public Health England, Active Partnerships, social care organisations, researchers, university teachers and students.

The project is led by Durham University, Sport England, and Disability Rights UK, and funded by Sport England and the National Institute of Health Research ARC NENC. It began in January 2021 and will run for 2.5 years.

Professor Brett Smith explains why it’s such an important project and how it aims to improve the health and care of disabled people in our region and beyond.

The starting point: physical activity matters deeply for disabled people

It is no secret that disabled people experience poorer health outcomes than non-disabled people. There are many reasons for this. These include inaccessible built environments, access to social and health care, and inequalities in education and job markets. Another significant issue driving health inequalities for disabled people is access to physical activity, a chance to move more and benefit from the important outcomes associated with being active. It is therefore important that physical activity promotion be taken seriously by disabled people supported by the people that have reach to communities and individuals.

Who can promote physical activity among disabled people successfully?

Recent research found that social care professionals and more concretely social workers are an overlooked yet important group of messengers for promoting physical activity among disabled people. Disabled people often view social workers as highly suitable messengers because social workers have a great reach and are credible, emphatic, and knowledgeable of their circumstances.

There is also now evidence that social workers themselves want to promote physical activity. It can be part of efforts to promote health and wellbeing, reinforcing a commitment to the Care Act. Personalised budgets can be used by disabled people to get and stay active. Social workers are vital here. They have said their expertise would be useful to support disabled people through the personalised budget process to get and stay active. Social workers have said that conversations about physical activity or sport can be incredibly useful as both a means to make positive change in other areas of people’s lives as well as to further showcase what positive things they do for communities.

Finally, we know that when people promote physical activity they themselves become more active. The benefits of promoting physical activity for social workers and the social work profession are thus many.

What is further research needed?

Recently a programme called ‘Moving Healthcare Professionals’ was set up to educate health care professionals, like GPs and physiotherapists, about how to promote activity. Despite the evidence highlighting the need and special importance of social workers in promoting physical activity, there is no standardised education or training for social workers to learn about how to offer guidance about physical activity to and for disabled people. This lack of training limits the possibilities to support social workers in the successful promotion of physical activity and what they can uniquely add to enhancing health and wellbeing. In turn, it limits the opportunities for disabled people to become active.

What do we aim to do?

We will conduct research to find out how best to educate and train people who are doing a social work degree – the social workers of tomorrow – in how to promote physical activity to and for disabled people. We will also produce a continuing professional development (CPD) programme to train social work professionals – those working today – in physical activity promotion. Evidence-based university/college teaching sessions, CPD training, and resources will be produced in appropriate communication formats for embedding in social work education in the UK.

The project supports the integration of physical activity conversations into routine social care

This is a co-produced research project. This means that we work together with people affected by the issues under research. Our partners include Social Work England, Sport England, social workers, disabled people, Public Health England, Active Partnerships, social care organisations, researchers, university teachers and students. The project is led by Durham University, Sport England, and Disability Rights UK, and funded by Sport England and the National Institute of Health Research ARC NENC. Our project will have a duration of 2.5 years and will finish in July 2022, but we hope to extend this initiative in the future.

Our long-term horizon is to embed physical activity promotion in the culture of social work

We aim to facilitate getting social workers into the habit of, and feeling confident about, promoting physical activity. Rather than prescribe movement, we envision social workers supporting disabled people get active their way.

To facilitate this, education and training will be person centred and anti-ableist. Although often unintentional, ableism refers to the prejudice in favour of non-disabled people and the segregation of disabled people. For example, we will ensure that social workers learn to challenge ableist messages within the national physical activity discourse, such as ‘move more, sit less’, which discriminate against wheelchair users or those in chronic pain who find sitting or lying beneficial for their wellbeing.

This is important, because on top of promoting active lifestyles, we want to promote equality and social justice. In this sense, our project aligns with and has the potential to amplify the professional passion of social workers.

Want to know more?

If you want to find out more about the project or share your views, please feel free to contact us on brett.smith@durham.ac.uk

An online event on 29 April 2021 will explore this project in more detail. Sign up here.