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 …