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Overcoming the odds: Fitness Instructor with a Disability

March 3, 2015

This winter, the team of Fitness Instructors at YMCA Surbiton have been joined by Tom; a 20 year old sports and fitness enthusiast with hemiplegia, a form of Cerebral Palsy where one side of the body is affected.

I met up with Tom on an early Monday morning in February, halfway through his 12 week placement at YMCA Surbiton, to talk about sports, his dreams for the future and how a programme called InstructAbility has helped him getting a foot in the door of the fitness industry.

Getting a fitness qualification

Tom-volunteer-at-Surbiton-2Tom got the work placement at YMCA Surbiton through InstructAbility, a 17 week programme designed to engage disabled people in the fitness industry as gym instructors and gym users.

The programme is developed by Aspire and is delivered in partnership with YMCA fit across Britain. The aim is to provide disabled people with free, accessible fitness industry training and qualifications followed by a voluntary industry work placement where instructors work to encourage more disabled people in the local community to participate in fitness activities.

I would recommend the programme to anyone with a disability,” says Tom. “It’s just a really good qualification to have and in 5 weeks, I basically learnt everything I needed to know to become a fitness instructor.

In particular, you learn how to deal with people with different disabilities, and what you can do to make the gym inclusive and accessible for everyone.  I also got some new friends, which was great. Finally, a good thing about it is that it was held in a sports venue and that it focused more on the practicalities than the theory”.

After the programme, Aspire got in touch with YMCA Surbiton, who offered Tom a 12 week work placement.

My work tasks include checking that the weights are in the right place, making sure the gym is clean and tidy and that the people using it are ok. Also, I have been shadowing the fitness instructors on all their appointments with members”.

Valuable work placement

Andy Mole, Volunteer Co-ordinator at YMCA LSW, has played a key role in Tom’s placement.

He says:

“Volunteering is a great way to gain some practical experience of the fitness industry and so we are pleased that we could offer Tom the opportunity. It was also a great opportunity for the Association to support a fantastic programme like InstructAbility. Tom is a welcome addition to the Team, I was really impressed with him the first time we met, his passion for health and fitness is infectious.

Tom has been very open about his disability and has given some really great advice and insight. In addition to Tom shadowing and learning from our experienced Fitness Instructors, the purpose for the placement is for Tom to become a role model and inspire others in the community to engage within health and fitness and breakdown those barriers. Tom’s enthusiasm and commitment to the role has been exceptional”.

Tom says he has beeTom-volunteer-at-Surbiton-1n made to feel very welcome at YMCA Surbiton, and that all the instructors are very understanding of him being “the new guy” – giving him lots of support and advice.

After the first two weeks of working here I felt I had been here for years, it’s just such a great community atmosphere and the staff here is like family to each other”.

Taking a gap year between college and university, Tom is hoping that when the work placement is finished, he can continue to work at YMCA Surbiton.

It’s encouraging to know that some of the other staff here too started as volunteers and have worked their way in, and they have given me a lot of advice and tips on what I should do to secure a job as a fitness instructor,” Tom says.

Encouraging disabled people to be active

Candice Bryan, InstructAbility Regional Project Coordinator for London and the South-East, says:

“InstructAbility has helped many disabled people become qualified fitness professionals. Now that Tom is qualified, he is in the best position to encourage other disabled people to get active.  With huge support from placement providers such as YMCA Surbiton, I would encourage local disabled groups, carers and individuals to contact the centre.  Tom can then help you get active in 2015”.

Tom says that he thinks the “main challenge for people with disabilities when it comes to fitness and sports is that they can be a bit scared of going to the gym, thinking it’s ‘not for them’”.

When I first started working out in a gym I almost couldn’t do anything, but now, I can squat 90 kilos and I find that being physically active and working out gives me a lot of confidence,” he says.

I think the main thing we can do to make people with disabilities start using gyms is to make them feel welcome and at home, that they belong here too”.

A passion for sports

When he is not on his work placement in the gym at YMCA Surbiton, Tom’s life pretty much evolves around sports and fitness anyway, with football training, swimming competitions and weight training.

I grew up in a family where keeping active has always been important, and both my parents and my brother do lots of physical exercise”, he says.Tom-volunteer-at-Surbiton-3

Tom is a keen football player, and when we met he has just been accepted into the Development Cerebral Palsy team at Chelsea Football Club which he hopes to use as a stepping stone to get on to one of the even better teams in the club.

In addition, Tom is a swimmer, and he competes regularly. “My dream is to get to next year’s try outs for the Paralympics”, he says, “It would be extremely motivating if I made it there!”

The 2012 London Paralympics had a great impact on disability sports, and Tom thinks they raised people’s awareness about what people with disabilities are actually capable of, and that although you have a disability, anything is possible.

“Also, you see more disabled athletes taking part in television shows alongside ablebodied people now, and that’s a great thing,” Tom says, who mentions John-Allan Butterworth who recently competed in all sorts of tough winter sports on ‘Jump’.