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A swimming instructor who became a care worker during the COVID pandemic is using his experience to help a leisure provider become more inclusive.
Phil Sutton (pictured), who has taken up the new post of Inclusion Officer at Life Leisure in Stockport, says he ‘can’t wait’ to make a difference to the Stockport community.
An experienced swimming instructor, Phil, 32, developed a passion for inclusivity during his time at Seashell Trust, which supports people with complex learning difficulties. He said:
“I had always enjoyed my career in aquatics, but when I started teaching swimming at Seashell Trust it gave me a whole new love for it. I could see that people with additional needs got so much out of the activity, that it gave me a real sense of pride and purpose, being someone who can help them have that experience and the benefits that come from it.
“As a residential support worker, I also became much more aware of how excluded people with physical and cognitive disabilities can be – things we take for granted aren’t always accessible to them and should be.
“When the opportunity arose at Life Leisure, I jumped at the chance. It’s great to offer dedicated services for those who have specific needs, of course it is. But I liked the idea of working on the bigger picture on how to make physical activity more inclusive for everyone. To have sessions and facilities where anyone, no matter their ability, can enjoy fitness and experience the benefits of community activity.”
So far Phil has introduced a Stay and Play session for children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND), as well as tailored swimming sessions. He’s also working to introduce inclusive gym use, adaptive bike sessions and work placements across the Life Leisure centre’s for young adults with SEND in the local area. He said:
“Things have been going well. We’ve had great feedback from lots of parents and the young people have come back again and again. But I’ve still got lots of ambitions for the future and we have a long way to go to make the world more inclusive, not only for people with disabilities but for other marginalised groups.”
Having left home at an early age, feeling he had no direction in life, Phil is thrilled to have found a career he’s passionate about. He said:
“I was homeless at 18, sleeping rough, or on friends’ couches from time to time, even in a hostel at one point. But managed to get work in a supermarket. I wasn’t getting any job satisfaction from it but needed the money to afford somewhere to live and couldn’t see a way out.
“When I was 22, I saw an apprenticeship position as a swimming teacher at a pool in Tyldesley. I’d always enjoyed swimming and had been a good swimmer when I was younger, so this opportunity to do something I enjoyed jumped out at me. It was tough financially – I was living off a very low wage while I was getting my qualifications – but it was one of the best things I’ve ever done.”
While Phil’s job as swimming instructor set the wheels in motion for a fantastic career, even taking him to work overseas, it was COVID which brought Phil’s next turning point. With swimming pools closed, Phil took a job at Seashell Trust, a school for children with disabilities and complex needs in Cheadle Hulme. He said:
“There wasn’t much need for swimming teachers during lockdown, so I got a job at the Seashell Trust as a residential support worker. I worked with a few young people with a variation of complex needs and really enjoyed it.
“When the pools reopened, I was fortunate enough to get a job as a swimming teacher with Seashell, and I found it much more rewarding than working in mainstream pools. I got incredible satisfaction from seeing I was making a real difference to people’s lives. Knowing the barriers they face, and then seeing them get so much joy from time in the pool, was amazing.
“Swimming is great for everyone, but especially people with sensory needs and physical disabilities. When you see someone who struggles to walk, then able to swim in their own unique way with a bit of support– it’s incredible.”
Phil, who was this week awarded Bronze as Swim England’s Swimming Teacher of the year, added:
“It was eye opening. I realised there is a whole community of people with disabilities and additional needs who aren’t being considered in day-to-day life.”
Research from the Activity Alliance shows that disabled adults are almost twice as likely as non-disabled people to be physically inactive, and only four in 10 disabled people feel they have the opportunity to be as active as they want to be.
“My role at Life Leisure gives me the ability to change things for the better. In our centres, and in the community. It’s a big job but it’s an important one.”