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WILLING AND ABLE A new London gym is breaking all the rules about how the able- bodied and the disabled mix

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    WILLING AND ABLE A new London gym is breaking all the rules about how the able- bodied and the disabled mix

    WILLING AND ABLE A new London gym is breaking all the rules about how the able- bodied and the disabled mix
    The Independent - United Kingdom; Jan 19, 2002

    "I've spent most of my life hanging around gyms," says Daniel Quacoe. A professional welterweight boxer until a motorcycle crash three years ago left him with a spinal cord injury, he can now walk with callipers, though most of the time uses a wheelchair. "So after my accident it seemed natural to carry on going to the gym, but though many sports centres say they are accessible to people in wheelchairs, all they really mean is you can get through the front doors. Once you're inside there's nothing you can do without getting in and out of your chair."

    So Daniel now makes the journey halfway round the M25 from his home in Crawley, West Sussex, to the northern outskirts of London to use a gym where he knows he is guaranteed a decent workout. Every piece of equipment in the fitness studio at the Aspire National Training Centre in Stanmore can be used by someone from their wheelchair, without requiring assistance. But what makes the facility unique is not so much this collection of custom- built hardware, though it is believed to be the largest of its kind in Europe, rather it is the pioneering philosophy that underpins the whole operation. For this is not a ghetto gym for disabled people, somewhere to mix with "their own" in a parallel, paralympic universe. The buzz word at Aspire is integration. So while 40 per cent of the paying customers are disabled, the rest are the usual red-faced crowd you'd meet in any high street gym - twentysomething likely lads working doggedly on their six packs and desk-bound office workers who long ago misplaced theirs. "It's the mix that makes this one of the best places in the world," says Daniel. "All the distinctions you encounter every day outside about disabled and non-disabled don't matter here. No one stands out. We're all just gym-users."

    The formula is reflected in the staff. Among the fitness instructors are several wheelchair-users, including 55-year-old Val Ford. She had been working at Aspire as a volunteer receptionist. "I suppose I thought what most people would think - that gyms are not the place for older women and certainly not for older women in wheelchairs. But just being here made me think again. And then I was persuaded to go off on a fitness leaders' course, so here I am doing something that a few years ago I would never have dreamt of. I do induction courses for new members two mornings a week. When some of the young able-bodied lads turn up and meet me, I can see they're thinking `what's she doing here?' But I just get on with it, show them what to do and talk about football or whatever sport they're into, and by the end of the session I hope they may not notice my wheelchair so much".

    In an environment traditionally geared towards getting what is generally acknowledged as a beautiful body, the presence of Val and Daniel cannot help but turn received wisdom on its head. That is how it was for Clare Concannon, an able-bodied training manager who is in for her regular session with Val. "I live locally and came here at first because they looked after you better than other places I've tried. But working out with Val has made me realise that there's nothing any of us can't do if we want it enough. You can't help but think afresh and that makes for a special atmosphere."

    The pounds 6m centre that houses the gym was designed by Foster and Partners, funded by the National Lottery and the Allied Dunbar Foundation, and is operated by the national spinal injuries charity, Aspire, on a non-profit- making basis. The building also includes a sports hall, a dance studio, a computer suite and internet cafe plus a 25m swimming pool. The 250,000 users who pass through its doors each year come from all over London and the South-east. Recently one man travelled down from Burnley, Lancashire just to try it out. Every class in each area from aerobics to canoeing, archery to pilates is taught by someone trained to lead integrated groups. Even the viewing gallery is wheelchair-accessible. The pool has a ramped access so that disabled users can simply turn up, transfer in the changing room into a special pool chair, and then take the plunge like everyone else.

    Sally O'Shea, who swims every Thursday with her carer, started coming because she hated being consigned to separate sessions for disabled swimmers elsewhere. "They don't put up any artificial barriers here," f she says. And Shubnum Rajpal likes it because she can bring both her sons - nine-year-old Adam and 11-year-old Mohamed, who has cerebral palsy - at the same time, sure in the knowledge that people won't stare at Mohamed in his chair. "It's somewhere he can feel comfortable and Adam can feel comfortable and not out of the ordinary."

    The concept of integration sounds deceptively simple. In practice, says Aspire's chief executive, Brian Carlin, there have been many obstacles to overcome - most notably finding and training enough teachers in the integrated approach. There were many gloomy voices, some from disability organisations themselves, that said the charity would never be able to attract able-bodied and disabled sports buffs at the same time. Yet they have been proved wrong and now Carlin is keen to spread the good news.

    At an immediate level, more venues like this would stop people like Daniel Quacoe having to travel so far simply to go to the gym. But Carlin also believes that what has happened in Stanmore has the potential to precipitate a cultural and social change in attitudes to disability every bit as effectively as the Disability Discrimination Act, passed in the last Parliament after demonstrations in which protesters chained themselves to the railings outside the Palace of Westminster. "We are wholeheartedly behind the new act, but the reality is that you can change the law without changing attitudes. We have had racial equality legislation for years now, for example, but prejudice remains. Yet if on the simplest level able-bodied users of our gym take on board, simply by repeated exposure, the very basic idea that the person in the wheelchair at the next pec-deck is just the same as them, then you're on the road to dispelling prejudice." Daniel puts it more simply. "I hope that if someone who's worked out with me here later on walks past me in the street, he'll know not to look at me like I'm odd or to be pitied. Best of all they wouldn't even notice that I was in a wheelchair at all."

    You can take this argument several stages further on, so that the next time that able-bodied iron-pumper sits on a recruitment panel for his or her firm and has to assess a candidate with a disability that comes for the job in question, they may just realise that it wouldn't be as unthinkable as perhaps they had once imagined to appoint that disabled person. It is a small-steps, hearts-and-minds strategy, but one apparently with plenty of mileage in it. At least that is what both Sport England and Lord Foster think. Both are now backing Aspire's ambitious plans to take the gospel of integration to health and leisure centres nationwide.

    Aspire isn't planning to build more centres, but to use what they have achieved as a blueprint to win over existing operators. Lord Foster's part will be to influence architects to create buildings that are not just accessible, but which are also practical for disabled users. And Sport England, through which National Lottery funds were originally channelled into the Aspire centre, hope to use Stanmore to demonstrate both the practical and financial potential of catering for the one in nine members of the community who have a disability. At a time when there are too many health and leisure centres chasing too little business, Aspire offers the intriguing prospect that there is a whole constituency out there, presently untapped, for whom you can cater by adding integration to your existing facilities. Moreover the charity has realised its goals without having to pump in vast sums of subsidy. Aside from a small grant from the Diana, Princess of Wales Fund - Aspire was one of her charities - the centre is financially independent.

    And no one need doubt the success on a very fundamental level. Back in the gym, retired businessman Allen Bergson has come for his work-out with Val. He suffers from a muscle-wasting disease which restricts his breathing. "The doctors told me a few years ago that I wouldn't survive," he says. "I put the fact that I have down to being able to come to this place." E

    The Aspire National Training Centre, Stanmore, London can be contacted on 020-8954 5759 or visit

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    Wonderful article and worthy of thought. I have, for some misguided stereotypic reason, suspected that a fully accessible gym would be short of disabled users. For years I have been preaching and advocating phuysical fitness. But the response has left me feeling as if my words fell on deaf ears.