By Karen Lai
Last year, 2015, marked my 20th year of participating in fitness classes. Today, I love my classes as much as when I started in November 1995. Some people might think me “weird” when I tell them how much joy I get from my mere one hour of aerobics!
Like many people living with a disability, I was introduced to recreation and sports through my rehabilitation team. Such activities promised to help me develop fundamental daily living skills, including walking, climbing stairs, balancing and running. Born with cerebral palsy, specifically spastic diplegia, my balance, coordination, mobility, speech and dexterity are all affected. Despite this, I eventually became part of the Disabled Skiers Association of BC (now known as BC Adaptive Snowsports); took part in Cerebral Palsy Sports as a competitive swimmer; and tried therapeutic horseback riding. I diligently upheld my responsibilities to my therapists and engaged in these activities as both a participant and a competitor. Unfortunately, they were “things I needed to do” rather than “things I really wanted to do.” And so, I did not embrace the joy of these activities. Rather, they were a therapeutic way of mastering the fundamentals.
When I was doing my undergraduate studies, a friend from school, Kathy, convinced me to try a step class that was offered on campus. I was hesitant—steps take balance and coordination, and I would need to keep up with everyone. All through my inclusive school years, PE class and sports were not my favourites—I was always the last one picked for teams, I had difficulty catching and hitting balls, and was the last one in from a run. Similar to many people with disabilities, I didn’t have many positive stories of PE or extracurricular sports. So why would I want to relive those memories and do a step class with other people without physical disabilities?
From klutzy to comfortable
Fortunately, Kathy won the battle and I surrendered. In my first step class I was a total klutz, falling off my board and unable to keep on the beat. This went on for months. On a couple of occasions, the instructor came over and was very supportive. But I didn’t go unless Kathy dragged me there. I hated it, and I very conscious that I was the only one with a visible disability. As the school term came to an end, however, I started to fall in love with the music and actually became used to the step patterns. I was determined not to lose that skill, so I joined my local community centre and went to my classes with a smile. The sessions soon became part of my routine and, because of that, I began to develop new friendships with the other regulars.
Today, 20 years later, I realize that I was the only one putting limits on myself. Because of how we view disability, I was really conscious of being the only visibly disabled woman in these fitness classes. Now, I belong to a couple gyms and my classes are the heartbeat of my life. I can’t imagine my life without being active. When I have a crappy day, I go to the gym. When I need a good laugh or to relax, I go to the gym. It is one of my joys in life.
Fitness classes are one of the places where I feel included, because we all have something in common. We talk about the various moves, the instructors, the classes, things other members are doing and the music. My disability has never been a topic of discussion and nor will it—because after knowing my fitness friends for more than 10 years, they have accepted that this is who I am! It is now routine for instructors to give easy, medium and hard options to meet the needs of the participants, and it is in the individual’s best interest to do what works for them. Each of us explores new ways to do our moves safely. I have to admit that it is obvious that I have a disability but, like everyone else, I take the options that I need. This has brought me a new perspective on living with a disability—deal with it, and find the options that you personally need to achieve inclusion.
Because of this, my definition of “disabled” has shifted. People with disabilities might do things differently or need extra support, but who is to say that this is a negative thing? I have realized that it was me who viewed my disability as a negative.
Being part of a fitness class in which the majority of participants have no visible disability has forced me to expose my “vulnerability” to doing the moves, and that I have to accept the easy or medium options. However, this has taught me to live more humanly and authentically, acknowledging that we all have imperfections and weaknesses to share with one another. In addition, I have realized that having a visible disability can even make my life easier, because I don’t have to hide. I believe that this automatically allows me to relate to others or to ask for help from friends and my community. For me, this is inclusion—together, we break down the walls and we welcome one another, exposing our vulnerabilities with respect, understanding and acceptance.
Afraid no more
My acceptance and reframing of my disability have transferred to how I interact with others and my participation in other activities. I am not afraid to try new things. I have developed many long-lasting friendships and a good social network. I have the confidence to present my wholeness of self while interacting for my work, community and society.
Clearly, I would never have expected one silly hour of fitness to have such a profound effect. But there is an absolute joy in sweating with my friends, stepping to funky moves, running to groovy music and talking to other members. And just as there are different levels or options that participants need to take in a class to ensure a good workout, there are different levels of support that people need to live their day-to-day lives. The neatest thing is that the inclusion I feel in my fitness classes happened organically, disability or no disability—it was simply no big deal.
Karen Lai is a board member of the Canadian Abilities Foundation. She is passionate about active living, and breaking through barriers to social inclusion.