Kris and his dance partner Florence posing for the camera

“Can I teach aerobics in a wheelchair? Yes, I can!” #Superhumans #Paralympics

Kris Saunders-Stowe is one of the stars of Channel 4’s new Paralympics TV advert. As the Superhumans return to an uplifting soundtrack of Sammy Davis Jr’s Yes, I Can, Kris talks about his passion for dance and how the Paralympics show the importance of focusing on what disabled people can achieve. 

My parents always encouraged me to try new things. I loved watching Come Dancing, which was primetime Saturday night viewing back then and my aunt and uncle were competitive ballroom and Latin American dancers.

I remember visiting my aunt and she would be surrounded by bags of sequins, netting and brightly coloured feathers, busily making costumes for their next competition.

I started learning ballroom and Latin American dance when I was seven. I was hooked – progressing through all the levels to ‘gold bar’ – my teacher thought I had potential and wanted to coach me to become a professional dancer.

But sadly outside the studio things were not as positive.

My mother, proud of my achievements, sent me to school loaded with my medals and certificates, and I’d be called up on stage during assembly to share my success.

The intentions were good, but I became the odd one out. I ended up being bullied quite badly, which changed me and how I saw myself. So I gave up dance in a bid to stop it, but the bullying carried on throughout my school life.

I’ve often wondered what my life would be like if I’d carried on dancing. But as my health deteriorated and I lost most of the function in my legs due to a progressive degenerative condition, the idea of dancing again faded away.

Using a wheelchair it felt like I was taking back control

When I started using a wheelchair it felt like I was taking back control and regaining my independence. I became a fitness instructor and I was able to enjoy music and rhythm again through teaching aerobics. I learnt wheelchair dance and qualified as an instructor through the Wheelchair Dance Sport Association.

A few months ago, I was invited to audition for a part as a wheelchair dancer in an advert. I found out after the auditions that I’d been chosen to be part of Channel 4’s Paralympics advert, which was fantastic.Kris holding his dance partner aloft

The experience has reignited my passion for dance and opened up further opportunities to do so. I let the bullying end my dreams of dancing and when I first became disabled I felt like I ‘couldn’t’ dance, but now I can because of my disability. I met many new friends through working on the ad, there was a great mix of personalities and we share being part of something iconic.

Yes I Can

Kris-Florence3The ad for London 2012, which was created by the same director, was dynamic and punchy, conveying the passion, drive and commitment of Paralympians. This year’s will share those qualities, but it also features disabled people, not just Paralympians, doing a wider range of sports, playing music and other activities. It sends a simple message to everyone who thinks or is told they can’t do something: Yes I Can.
When I work with disabled clients as a fitness instructor, I always focus on what people can do rather than what they can’t. I believe we all have the ability to do anything we want in life. Often we can lack confidence in ourselves and so when someone tells us we can’t do something we accept they are right and never achieve our full potential. Yet if we truly believe in ourselves and are encouraged to explore we can change those ideas and perceptions.

When I began my career as a fitness instructor, I attended a course to become an aerobics instructor. The course tutor assumed that because I’m a wheelchair user I wouldn’t be able to fulfil the course criteria, she said I “should be on a special course”. It’s fair to say I proved her wrong, my main career is as an aerobics instructor and I work to challenge people’s perceptions of what disabled people can achieve. Can I teach aerobics in a wheelchair? Yes I can!

It’s human nature to pigeonhole people based on first impressions. But disability comes in so many shapes and forms, visible and invisible that no one person can be considered the same. The same is true for people who aren’t disabled. We’re all the same because we’re all uniquely different.

Kris on set of the Channel 4 advert
Kris on set of the Channel 4 advert

Too many people look at the impairment, at what they think or assume someone can’t do, rather than what they can do. One of the things I like about Channel 4’s new ad is that it shows what disabled people are capable of, not just on a Paralympian level, but as people taking part in everyday activities that lead to a healthier, enjoyable and more independent life.

What do you think of Channel 4’s Superhumans ad? Tweet your response using the hashtag #Superhumans.