Experienced coaches Louise Assioun and Sue Morrison – founders of activity inclusion brand Learning United, Sports Unlimited (LUSU Sports) – have spent their entire careers helping young people enjoy the physical and mental health benefits of an active lifestyle. But when the pandemic hit, they quickly had to overhaul their business model, at a time when children needed their support the most.
A pre-lockdown local delivery pilot was already underway in partnership with Seashell Trust for GM Moving (Greater Manchester), which saw the duo deliver specialist kit bags, training and monthly activity sessions for local disabled children and their families, initially in the Stockport region. But met with the outbreak of Covid-19, LUSU quickly accelerated their scheme and took the concept online.
And word soon got out, with the offer extended to the Kirklees (West Yorkshire) district over summer. Fast forward to lockdown 2.0, and the two inspiring women have delivered more than 100 hours of virtual support – plus dozens of kit bags – to over 240 families in total, earning them the affectionate title of “Joe Wicks for disabled children”, among the people they’ve helped.
Commenting on their journey to date, LUSU’s co-founder Sue Morrison said: “The social impact of Covid-19 has been vast for everyone, but particularly disabled people. Many of us saw our activity levels drop as a result of the first lockdown, for example, but the activity gap widened for those with a disability, impairment or learning difficulty.
“For instance, in August, Activity Alliance research revealed that nearly half (45%) of parents reported that their disabled children’s physical health has declined, with 54% saying the same of their own health. Over two thirds (68%) have experienced delays to health or social care assessments and 72% are doing a lot more of their own care – not least because child therapies have not restarted in more than 7 in 10 cases.
“We knew we had to do something, and lockdown 2.0 only amplified that need.”
LUSU activity bags have now been distributed nationally by Sense to families across England – as part of the Sense Connect programme – and with further pilot schemes due to commence over the coming weeks, the duo are currently juggling hectic zoom call schedules with more kit bag filling, ready to welcome upcoming participants.
Louise continued: “As a result of lockdown, we have children and young adults who – through no fault of their own – are having to stay at home during these times as their school has remained closed since March, so the LUSU programme has provided some much-needed organised activity in their weekly schedule.
“Every family receives a LUSU kit bag full of stimulating and inclusive educational products, along with 40 activity plans, a QR code to direct people to our YouTube video guidance, and a challenge card with stickers that the family will fill by the end of our six-week course. There’s also the joining information for our live ‘coach in the room’ sessions too, of course.”
“We’re helping children with very varying needs too,” she explained. “We work with an 11-year-old quadriplegic with cerebral palsy, who communicates using an eye gazer, for example. He loves to engage with our kit bag to participate in PE lessons. Elsewhere, a mum of three children under six – including two with autism – has described our sessions as a magical hour which has boosted their self-esteem and her own weight loss, at the same time as the children’s physical health and wellbeing.”
LUSU’s journey began in 2016, backed by pro bono support from brand consultancy The Engine Room. Founders Louise and Sue had a clear vision – with over 40 years’ combined experience coaching young people in sport and leisure skills, they were passionate about finding ways for everyone to be active and knew they were well placed to help change the attitudes and techniques used by teachers and coaches throughout the country.
Despite the clarity of this purpose, the challenge, at the time, was vast – but LUSU set to work delivering the kit bags, structured activity cards for coaches of all levels, plus specialist training and consultancy services.
However, nothing could have prepared them for the activity divide that would emerge in 2020.
“22% of disabled people say Covid-19 has impacted their mental health, and in June, 60% reported that they don’t believe the government is doing enough to support them (up from 45% in April),” added Sue.
“The data clearly shows – and has been reinforced by the charity Scope – that disabled people feel they’ve been left without the care and support they need. We’re determined to change that.”
Work is soon set to recommence on LUSU’s website to expand on the variety of products and advice available to their growing audience. The search is also on for additional, equally passionate sports therapists to join the team.