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'Disabled people who aren’t Paralympian's should have [equal] opportunity to get involved in sport'
Ahead of Scope’s Make it Count campaign, starting 24 August 2021, participant Laura Cook gives us the low-down on her experiences of sport as a disabled person. Giving an honest account of barriers to inclusion, her motivation and why London 2021 was a 'complete revelation', perhaps you can relate to her story?
Laura, 41, works in Policy and Campaigns for the Bell Foundation. Laura has a genetic syndrome called nail patella syndrome which affects her mobility.
What was your experience of sport and activity growing up?
I was born with two club feet and had to have lots of corrective surgery but didn’t think about it much as a child. I was in mainstream school, had a positive experience at secondary school. I was more of a reading student than a sporty student, so doing sport wasn’t a huge priority for me
As a family we used to go swimming once a week, so my parents always understood the importance of exercise, but they never forced it. I always really enjoyed swimming.
Growing up, it felt like no one at school was making an effort to include me in sports. At school had to do trials for sports day, just like everyone else, knowing full well that I wouldn’t qualify. I knew it was pointless, I couldn’t compete in the same sphere really, and I didn’t want to do it.
Did your relationship with exercise change as you grew older?
I used to be able to manage a lot with my condition, I just got physically very tired. In my 30’s, I noticed issues with discomfort, pain and tightness and it was having an impact on my daily life. Doctors didn’t know what was happening and I just got told to manage it myself. I didn’t understand at that time what was happening to me physically. I was getting overtired to the point of being really anxious, not knowing what’s happening and thinking I couldn’t do my job anymore.
It’s taken a long point from then to learn that I need to pace myself and work from home when I can. I started to build my confidence and then I realised that probably what I do need to do is some kind of exercise.
I spent a while trying lots of different things. A neighbour told me she’d joined the local gym in 2018, I wanted to try swimming because I used to love it.
The instructor made me feel so included because they were really good at finding different ways for me to do the exercises with different floats. But one week there was a different teacher. When I told him there were certain things I couldn’t do and asked for alternatives, his reaction made me feel totally judged and it just completely put me off.
How has joining a gym impacted your life?To start with it was to get a bit of my fitness back. When I went back to commuting, I was struggling to get to the top of the stairs, and one thing I noticed after my physical training (PT) sessions was that I could get up the stairs more easily, which felt great.
Having studied languages, I love to travel. I want to go places and having the mobility and strength to do that is massive.
Joining a gym has had a huge positive effect on my mental health. I’ve really noticed that it just makes me feel so much better, and I’ve really noticed that link between physical and mental health.
The satisfaction of being able to do something you didn’t think you’d be able to do is priceless. I’ve certainly achieved things in the gym that I never thought I would.
What made you feel excluded from gyms and personal trainers in the past?
My preconceptions about gyms and personal trainers were based on my experience of a different gym which was really intense and intimidating. I asked the staff to help me find other things I could do in the gym, and I was faced with these negative attitudes and just felt like a burden.
Then my neighbour, who is disabled, joined a gym and I joined. At the leisure
centre, a PT came down to introduce himself and he was talking to all the
people using the specialist equipment. My neighbour decided to try out a PT
session and said how good it was.
I was quite nervous to do it, I thought “why would a personal trainer want to train me?” but then I started, and I just didn’t look back. What I’ve noticed over the years, is how much that one-to-one support helps. It’s amazing working with someone who gets to know you and adapts exercise for you.
What was it like for you when the gym was shut during lockdown?
When the pandemic hit in 2020, it was just a horrible year for me. My father passed away and my mother was being treated for a serious illness and covid was just another thing. So, I kept quite motivated to keep doing stuff.
Last April I did some home PT sessions at work, using things like candle holders as weights and my French and German dictionaries as steps. My PT created the sessions for me, and I’d do them over zoom. So, I had one every weekday for four weeks.
In May when we were allowed to be outdoors, we did outdoor workouts, and again he adapted it to me. Doing classes outside is so great, really.
But I found it a lot harder during the second lockdown. It was so cold and the gyms were closed. It got dark so early, and I was struggling to stay motivated. I realised I had to do something, and we could meet one other person, so we just went for walks.I’m thrilled to be back in the gym now. I did my February walking challenge for Scope, it meant that I didn’t go back to zero, so it hasn’t been too much of a shock.
Do the Paralympic games inspire you or not? Do they make a difference to how we see disabled people taking part in sport?
For me personally, London 2012 was a complete revelation. I was lucky enough to get a ticket to the Paralympic 2012 opening ceremony and the atmosphere was amazing. I felt so much a part of something, I felt like I belonged to something,
And all the events were sold out. I thought no one would be there but it was absolutely packed. The atmosphere was amazing. I think London did really well in terms of improving accessibility of transport and signage. It helped to normalise disability and gave disability and disabled people exposure that they hadn’t had before.
It was actually a piece in the local paper because of the 2016 Paralympics which inspired to me to get involved in Sport. The article was about ways to do disability sport in the area, and I didn’t know there was anything around!
But I think it’s slowly been forgotten over the years. It’s all very well being a Paralympian, but they are elite athletes. Disabled people who aren’t Paralympian's should also have the same opportunities to get involved in sport! I think part of the problem is not knowing where to look for accessible sporting events and facilities. You need to build your network and do some real digging!
Why are you taking part in Make it Count?
I’m taking part because I want physical activity to be accessible to everyone, I want everyone to have the chance to find the physical activity that they really enjoy and that is right for them. I have seen in myself how much better you can feel physically and mentally.
I really want to encourage others to feel they can do something and not be scared of trying something new – you will find something that works for you!
Over to you:
- Can you resonate with Laura's experiences of sport growing up?
- Have you come across similar barriers to exercise as a disabled person?
- How did the lockdown impact your physical activity levels?
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