I have cerebral palsy (CP) and the assumption that I couldn’t take part in sport while growing up was one I was happy to embrace because I hate physical exercise.
So imagine my frustration when Paralympics 2012 came to London and disabled people the world over seemed to be getting sporty. Every other taxi driver would ask me if I was going to take up sprinting.
Though the Paralympics loomed large, it turns out I am not the only disabled person who dislikes taking part in sport. According to new research by Scope, although most disabled people think the London Paralympics showed they can achieve great things, only 5% of them were actually inspired to do more exercise or sport after the games.
The thing about having CP is that I never had to think about keeping fit very much. The way I walk is exhausting, and has always been a workout in itself. As a result, I have spent most of my life being very thin without even trying. For people with CP, this isn’t uncommon: there was even a Facebook group called Why Diet When You Can Have Cerebral Palsy? where we’d share our outrageously decadent calorific dinner plans and then laugh about how we planned to burn it all off tomorrow, simply by walking a bit.
But I had to leave that Facebook group because, unexpectedly, I got fat.
In what I now know is a pattern common to people who share my disability, as I hit my thirties, I became less mobile. This meant I did less of my characteristic strenuous walking and put on significant weight for the first time. “Oh yes,” said every medical professional I encountered, “this is what happens with CP as you approach middle-age.” Great.
So, now I have to watch what I eat and also do exercise.
But this change in my attitude isn’t just vanity, I need to shed the extra weight so I can improve my mobility.
I knew that I had to do something physically challenging … but what?
A physiotherapist once recommended I join a gym and I laughed at her because, well, gyms aren’t for me. People tend to stare when you have a disability, and I need to feel comfortable if I’m going to work out.
“I hate the gym,” agrees John Dickinson-Lilley, one of Britain’s top blind male ski racers. “I have a utilitarian approach to fitness. I have to go to the gym so that I can ski.” He’s comfortable in the gym he’s been attending for the last five years, but he stopped taking his guide dog or cane because of the attention it attracted.
Although it’s a necessary evil, I felt nervous about approaching the gym for the first time in my life, especially when I couldn’t move as well as I am used to.
Kris Saunders-Stowe, a wheelchair user and qualified fitness instructor tells me that I am not alone in feeling intimidated by a typical gym environment. “Centres don’t always help,” he says. “There is a lot of ignorance. They need to understand the disabled community more.”
Kris met prejudice when taking his instructor qualifications. One tutor told him he should be in “the special class” but it didn’t put him off. He believes attitudes are beginning to change, and, in an attempt to fill the gap, he now runs fitness classes for disabled people in Herefordshire. “Legs aren’t necessary to keep fit,” he says. He took mainstream fitness qualifications, and went on to specialise in working with disabled people. He’s about to release an exercise DVD for people with disabilities. The routine is energetic, but assumes the participant is sitting down.
Crucially, Kris says, the kind of fitness he promotes isn’t about winning medals. “People assume you want to be a paralympian, but it isn’t about becoming a big sports person.” For disabled people, the goals can be more modest, but life-changing, he says. “Forget fitness, some people just want to be able to lift their mug.”