Aspire is a unique organisation that has led the way in inclusive leisure facility design and has pioneered greater inclusion of disabled people in the leisure industry workforce.


The national charity was set up initially to raise funds to build a rehabilitation facility for patients of the London Spinal Injury Centre.  In its desire to make the facility also available to the local community, Aspire created a fully integrated accessible leisure centre that could be enjoyed by disabled and non-disabled people together, the first of its kind in Europe.


The Aspire Leisure Centre operates as a successful business that also supports the charity’s work to provide practical support for people with a spinal cord injury. The Charity runs various fundraising events based around sport and physical challenges. The Aspire Channel Swim is one of its flagship events that encourage people to swim the distance either as a real open water challenge or within their local pool.


In addition to attracting disabled customers the Aspire Leisure Centre also recruits staff and volunteers with lived experience of disability into its workforce, from reception staff through to gym instructors. Many of the disabled members report feeling more welcome and less intimidated in the leisure setting when they see people ‘like them’ working there.


Recognising that disabled people were significantly under-represented in the wider fitness sector workforce,  Aspire set up the InstructAbility programme in 2010 to create accessible training and employment opportunities.


The Sport England funded programme is open to a wide range of disabled people, including those with physical and sensory impairments and people who have experienced mental health difficulties.

Aspire has partnered with training providers such as YMCAfit and The Institute of Swimming to enable disabled people to become qualified leisure professionals. As part of the programme instructors undertake a leisure centre work placement to develop their skills and encourage other disabled people in the local community to get active.

To date, over 300 disabled people have qualified as fitness professionals, with many gaining employment following their placement. The impact of InstructAbility has been independently evaluated by Public Health England (2018) concluding that the programme has positive benefits for participants that impact their health, wellbeing and employment opportunities.  Statements illustrating this impact included in the report

‘My confidence has grown, job prospects have changed hugely & now become a trainer within the fitness industry & helping more disabled people into exercising & improving their daily lives.’

‘It has got me working after 5 years unemployed and being told I should never work again. It's opened up opportunites for me as a person, it has just enriched my life in a way that words just can’t describe.’

However it is not just disabled people on the scheme that benefit, employers also have a lot to gain. Hilary Farmiloe, who manages the InstructAbility programme at Aspire, explains,


“Although you can teach staff to understand disability, nothing compares to having someone on your team who has lived it.  Disabled instructors often use high-level problem solving skills in their own life, which they can draw upon to adapt exercise for others. They can help the centre attract a broader client base and employers often report a positive impact on their existing staff, enhancing knowledge and understanding across the organisation. ”


InstructAbility has partnered with hundreds of leisure operators across the country with employers providing positive feedback;

'Paul was very engaging with school groups and those members that have some form of disability. Paul brought in five new disabled customers and had a very positive influence on the working atmosphere of the gym'.  Kingshall Leisure Centre

'It has opened a new avenue for us and engaged with people we would normally struggle to.  It has also raised the awareness within the gym team and enhanced the offering from the centre'.  Felixtowe Leisure Centre

Despite the success of InstructAbility, Aspire is not satisfied with the status quo.

Farmiloe says,

“InstructAbility exists because there are still too many physical and attitudinal barriers to disabled people wishing to train and work in the leisure sector. Inclusion is at the heart of Aspire’s mission, whether we are looking at leisure services or workforce development.  We want disabled people to have the same choice and opportunities as non-disabled people and all the time we segregate disabled people from the rest of society , we will perpetuate the belief that the problem is with the disabled person, rather than the barriers constructed by society which inhibits their inclusion.”

With an eye on this longer term vision, Aspire is working with Birmingham University to create 'Best Practice Guidelines' for training and employing disabled people in the sector.  The research project is currently underway with a plan to publish the guidelines early next year.


In the meantime, graduates of the InstructAbility programme are making their own mark on the industry as they forge careers and become key influencers of the future. Some graduates have already opened their own inclusive gyms employing disabled staff, with others being invited onto leisure boards and working with training providers and equipment manufacturers to enhance access and inclusion.  They also act as role models for other disabled people who want to pursue a career in the fitness industry.


We look forward to sharing stories of these successful fitness professionals in future publications.