Health: The gym where nobody has a handicap

For the disabled, keeping fit is a trial. Now Europe's first gym that aims to be wheelchair-friendly
GOING TO a gym for the first time can be a nerve-wracking event for anyone. How will you look compared to everyone else? How do you use the equipment? Imagine how much more worrying the experience can be if you're in a wheelchair.

Somewhat surprisingly, it's taken until now to address these problems, with the opening of a unique type of gym, in Stanmore, this month. Launched by Aspire National Training Centre, it's the the first gym in Europe to ensure that none of its facilities are off-limits to people with disabilities. All the corridors and doors have been specially designed to be wheelchair- friendly, and the building is full of lifts.

Even the swimming-pool has ramp access, which means that, instead of being unceremoniously hoisted into the pool by winch, you can simply wheel yourself down. A quick glance at the classes scheduled shows that aerobics, basketball and rugby are for everyone, wheelchair-bound or not.

"This gym is a perfect example of how every sport can be adapted for any disability," says Lewis Cohen, the health and fitness manager. "We have the same kit you'd find in any gym in the country, but all our machines can be adapted for use by a person in a wheelchair."

The gym is located on the premises of Stanmore Orthopaedic Hospital, and one of its main roles has been to act as a half-way house for people trying to recover from accidents, especially those involving spinal cord injuries.

Val Ford, 64, suffered from polio as a child, which left her unable to use her legs. Despite being wheelchair-bound for six years, last year Val retrained as a fitness instructor, and now works in the weights' room. She often finds herself acting as a role model for people who are having problems coming to terms with their physical limitations.

"Some of the people who come here are really traumatised," she explains. "It can be a great shock to be able-bodied one day, then find yourself disabled the next. However, when they see someone in a wheelchair lifting weights along with everyone else, it makes them see that they can do it too."

The gym's membership is a mix of able-bodied and disabled. "Most people here have got used to me, but sometimes, when I have to do the induction for an able-bodied person and teach them how to use the machines, I get a few raised eyebrows," says Val. "There is still a lot of prejudice against disabled people, and some people think that I should be at home in front of the television instead of helping people to get fit."

Remi Babatunde, 27, was a dancer, until a car accident a couple of years ago left her completely disabled from the chest down. She still finds it very difficult to talk about the huge impact the accident has had on her life, but the gym has clearly been a godsend. "It's depressing really," she says. "A lot of bed rest, and then rehab - but then, a year ago, I started coming here."

Remi now works out five times a week. As she talks, she is in the middle of a half-hour workout on the dual bicycle, using her arms to pedal. "The bike is one of our specialist pieces of equipment to help our disabled members improve their cardiovascular fitness," explains Lewis Cohen. "You can pedal it with your hands, your feet, or both together, depending on how much strength you have in each limb."

Remi is starting to flag a little, but is determined to keep going until she reaches her goal of 30 minutes. "I'm doing it to get fit enough to wear callipers on my legs, but I'm also doing it because I am going to walk again," she says. "The medical establishment doesn't do enough to help people. If I didn't come here, they would probably have left me in a chair, and not encouraged me to do anything. This is the only gym like this in the country - and there should be more. If you're disabled and don't live anywhere near Stanmore, you're lost."

Petros Petrou, 42, has been coming to the gym since the beginning of 1997. His three-hour workouts have earned him the title of "fittest man in the gym". His achievement is all the more astonishing, because Petros has been confined to a wheelchair since 1991, when deposits of fatty tissue around his spinal cord robbed him of the use of his legs.

"When you have a gym where everything is accessible to you, you have no excuse not to exercise," he explains. "I started coming here because I wanted to get fit enough to have callipers attached to my legs which would allow me to stand upright. I built up gradually to more exercises and more reps, and now I can use any piece of equipment here that doesn't require the use of my legs."

In the street, Petros is seen by the able-bodied as a man in a wheelchair. In the gym, he is simply one of the regulars. "Coming here has given me a lot more confidence and made me feel much better, " he says. "I get a real buzz from it."

The Aspire gym has shown that the biggest problem facing people with disabilities is the attitude of those around them.