Guest post from Kris Saunders-Stowe, a fitness instructor working with both disabled and non-disabled people. In Scope’s latest film, he explains why we need to change the way we think about disability and fitness.
My first response to the idea of using a wheelchair started with ‘f’ and ended with ‘off’! I was an active person, and never saw myself as a wheelchair user.
But my joint problems, which started 14 years ago, progressively got worse and I was doing less and less. Over time – and no word of a lie – I became a hermit. Going out became more and more difficult, and eventually I just thought, ‘What’s the point of going anywhere?’ I never went out apart from to the doctor and the supermarket.
‘It was so liberating’
Then some friends of mine were going to Alton Towers, and the only way I could realistically join them was by borrowing a wheelchair.
And that was it. It was so liberating. Suddenly I was back to normal. It was a completely different perspective – I was free to move about as quickly or slowly as I wanted, and I could do so much more.
That was two years ago, and I’ve never looked back since. My personality has come back, and I take things in my stride rather than letting them get on top of me. In actual fact, I think I’ve got a better life than I’ve had in probably 20 years.
Getting into fitness
I’ve always worked in horticulture and retail – never in sports or fitness at all. But then in 2012, I was in Cardiff and the Australian Paralympic team were staying in my hotel! We got chatting, and I followed the team during the Games and got quite engrossed.
I took up wheelchair basketball and we didn’t have a proper coach, so I had a go at standing in myself. I loved it, and I started thinking: ‘Could I do this for a job?’
Within a couple of months, I had started the qualifications I needed to become a fitness instructor.
While I was training, I realised that there aren’t enough fitness programmes properly tailored for disabled people. The few classes I could find on YouTube were extremely slow and sedentary. The instructor training manuals would say, ‘You may need to adapt this routine for disabled people…’ – but what does that mean? They didn’t say. It was a token gesture.
Wheely Good Fitness
So I decided to set up my own business, Wheely Good Fitness, running classes adapted for physically disabled people. That doesn’t mean they’re gentle or easy – they are pretty intense!
I currently run a variety of classes, including what is quite possibly the only wheelchair spin class in the world. We have a huge range of members, from people with slight mobility problems to those with very complex needs.
It’s incredibly rewarding for me because I can see the change in people. Within a few weeks they’re sitting up straighter in their wheelchairs, their flexibility increases, their confidence grows.
Suzy (right), one of our most committed members, recently pushed herself round a shopping centre for the first time in years. The change in her has been unbelievable.
I’m currently writing a set of qualifications for instructors, explaining how to create fitness regimes suitable for disabled people. My hope is that these will be accredited by awarding body Skills Active, which means the qualification will be available for instructors across the country to take.
I am so surprised that no one has looked at wheelchair-based fitness from a different perspective.
People seem to have got used to seeing disabled people as delicate and fragile, rather than as somebody who’s just got a different way of doing things. Being disabled doesn’t mean you need to be wrapped in cotton wool, it just means you need to think creatively about exercise and fitness.
Getting fit and taking control of your body is just another way of demonstrating your capabilities – and suddenly, you’re taking down those barriers.