Another win for inclusive fitness: Outdoor fitness parks for adults

senior-playground-ukThis morning I heard a man from Cobourg, Ontario on the radio talking about an initiative to bring an adult fitness park into that community. Since we are big here on the topic of inclusive fitness, the interview really stood out for me. I’ve also been talking to my class this week about the way “old age” is pathologized and medicalized (that’s been interesting, too), about ageism, and about the oppressive social structures that prize and normalize youth and the capacities we associate with it (being in “our prime”).  And my own parents, spry and active still, are very close to 80. They are remarkable role models for how I wish to age — I mean, they’re about to go to South Africa for four months and have planned a two-week tour of Namibia in February. Still and all, they have a realistic sense of their changing abilities and I am certain they would take advantage of a park such as this if one sprung up in their local community of Haliburton, Ontario.

The idea of initiatives that embrace evolving notions of fitness and create accessible environments for people entering later life stages appeals to me.  The Cobourg group trying to garner support for this idea made a presentation to the town’s council the other night, making the case that the town’s Recreation Strategy and Implementation Plan should include an Outdoor Adult Fitness Park. You can read the report here.

As part of their presentation, they said:

Providing free access to fitness equipment in public areas would be a logical addition to Cobourg’s already gorgeous beachfront, and would not only benefit the town’s citizen’s by improving the health of our community, but could also help with tourism and attracting retirees to our community.

Providing such fitness installations in Cobourg would also be a signal to this community (that) seniors matter and are an important part of the fabric of our town.

I love their reasoning: accessibility, maximizing the use of beautiful spaces in inclusive ways, promoting health and tourism, and sending a signal that Cobourg values seniors and considers them “an important part of the fabric of our town.”

senior-playground04-41f93f07a35a2efa3f6147735c6f9f2f

These kinds of fitness parks are not entirely new. The idea caught on in the 2000s and you can find them in China, England, Finland, Japan, and Spain, even in Whitby and in Oshawa, both just down the road from Cobourg. They’re an enormous hit in Barcelona, where there are 300 of them.

The Cobourg group has a Facebook page to try to drum up support for their project: https://www.facebook.com/cobourgfitnesspark/?fref=ts They’re inviting people to “like” their page to show support.

I would like to see more of these types of facilities installed in cities and towns across Canada. And as we promote them, it would be great to think of where they go — not just into affluent communities, but into diverse communities. They look like fun and they cater to a segment of the population whose needs are too frequently not considered a high priority unless medicalized. Making exercise fun and accessible is an important social goal that can improve quality of life in a more inclusive way.

 

Row Row Row Your Boat Out of Your Semi Existential Funk (Guest post)

by Samantha Walsh

I would like to thank Fit is a Feminist Issue and specifically Samantha (who shares my name) for the opportunity to write a guest blog post.  Over the past two years I have been looking for, and thus experimenting with, new sports and new challenges. The impetus for finding new fitness activities was a neck injury that changed the way I have to participate in sport and activity.

 

A little bit about me

To begin a little info about myself: I am 33, I am doctoral candidate in Sociology at the University of Toronto. I have held positions in both non-for-profit as well as post secondary institutions. I identify as a feminist and have an interest in social justice work.  I also have a condition called cerebral palsy which effects my coordination and ability to walk. I use a wheelchair to get around.   Much of my research and written work focuses on the social position of disability as it relates to class position and intersections of identity.  This blog post will venture in a new direct as a personal reflection on shifting your paradigm and identity.  I hurt my neck two years ago, and had to give up many of the activities I really liked, for a time.  I have been cleared to go back to most of them but, still really struggle to get back to the level of fitness I once had. It was the pursuit of new activities that brought me to rowing; and rowing which shifted the way I think about my own situation.

Row Row Row your Boat But, Wait There’s More

I took a “Learn to Row” from the Argonauts Rowing club in Toronto last year (2015). A “learn to row “is a beginner program where you literally learn to row; I was introduced to some of the rowing lexicon. I was taught how to row with the most efficient form.   During this time I had the opportunity to row a single.  I was also taught about the different adaptations that can be made to a boat to support a disabled rower. For example: A fixed seat so the rower is using their torso and arms, if they do not have coordination of their legs.  In competitive adapted rowing it is my understanding that rowers are classified based on their ability and then their times are compared.

It was also at this time, I learned the beloved childhood song “Row row row your boat”, is delightfully inaccurate, as it should likely include the phrase “Legs, back, arms” or “Oh my hamstrings”. Rowing was a full body workout and unexpectedly profoundly challenging.  I had befriended some varsity rowers during my undergraduate studies and had always thought the sport was neat.  I had wanted to try but, really struggled to find a rowing club that would accommodate the fact I have cerebral palsy and cannot walk. I had shelved the interest until a neck injury, mentioned above, made it difficult for me to participate in my usual fitness activities.  I was looking for something: that was a full body workout; that was social; not a team sport; could be done recreationally and able to be adapted.

Finding a New Sport Not So Easy When You Have a Disability

I started googling…An ongoing challenge I find as a disabled person whom is interested in their own fitness and recreation but, not interested in competition or team sports, is that I really struggle to find opportunities that provide: a challenging and comprehensive workout with a social component.  I find it is difficult for me to simply enroll in a sport ’n social league or other recreational things because, they often assume the participant will be able-bodied. The able body is almost compulsory for joining any sort of recreational sport.  For example: I have able bodied friends who are learning how to curl.  This seems like a great winter sport. It’s a fun game with the tradition of a beer after.  I know there is Wheelchair Curling. I have seen it on TV. However, I cannot find a league near me which supports wheelchair curling, so I do not curl.

I find often when I do find mainstream activities that welcome me and are reflexive to adaptation it is through a friend, a fitness instructor or coach who is excited to have different bodies in their class. I still find that the most common refrain for finding adapted sport is to rely on a team based program such as wheelchair basketball or a rehabilitation initiative. Moreover, adaptive sports equipment is often double or triple what an “able bodied” athlete would pay. For example: Running shoes versus the cost of a Racing Wheelchair. I long to be able to join beer leagues, workplace softball teams and drop in yoga classes. I am at a point in my life where my leisure time is limited. I am not interested in the lonely pursuits of excellene or segregated sports (these of course have their place). This is why, I was impressed to see the Argonauts advertised an adapted learn to row on their website. I was able to join for a fee and with very little self disclosure of my disability.  While rowing is a sport which typically favors those of higher socio-economic status it was a pleasant surprise to find out that the club had an open-door policy in regards to ability. However, I do recognize that it is my own privilege of being employed and having a disposable income that made my adventure in rowing possible.

You Are Only New Once…Or In The case of Rowing You Are New For Almost Two Years….

As mentioned above, I took a “learn to row” in 2015 and then returned for a second year of rowing in an adaptive program in 2016. I was really focused on rowing as a way to get a full body work out. I chose to row a single with a sliding seat that was comparable to an able bodied rower.  The single had pontoons on it as almost a training wheel system while, I learned to balance.  At the end of the 2015 season, I met another rower, Bill  (who was an single leg amputee) at an end of season party.  He offered to row a double with me.  In 2016, I practiced rowing both a double and a single.  While I had really enjoyed rowing a single; I liked the coaching I was receiving and really appreciated the solitude that rowing a single occasionally brought (other times it was a lot of trying not to row into things).  Rowing a double was a bit of a game changer for me.

 The Little Voice in the Back of your head, Or  If You Row the Person Speaking To the Back of Your Head

I had been very happy rowing a single.  The coaching style of the rowing club was one of positive feedback and constant things to build on. I felt like there was an assumed mutual respect. I was not in a subordinate position but, rather someone happy to learn from another person whom was happy to teach. This coaching style was in part why I looked forward to rowing, it was a happy add on to the beautiful scenery and comprehensive workout. Rowing a single though had not yielded me very many social opportunities. I did not know very many of the other rowers and often only spoke with my only my coach on the dock.  Additionally, early on I had told the club I was not interested in racing or competitive rowing. That I would be rowing just to get back into shape. Pleasantly, everyone seemed to respect this. To be fair though a novice rower does not usually compete.

The first night I rowed a double with Bill he made a point to introduce me to everyone he knew on the dock. Each person we encountered he would have a little story for. He would always introduce me with a little quip about losing a bet and having to row with him; or some interesting fact about me. I met a lot of different people very quickly.  In the boat Bill sat behind me doing a lot of the balancing and steering. He gave me feedback on my rowing.  He told me I was fast. He said I was always improving. Bill would go out in any kind of weather. Every time, I said the weather was bad, he would say something about the perfect day never comes. Often, I went with him on whatever adventure course he was set for.  He introduced me to more people. He talked to the coordinator and coaches about my progress.  He told me I should race. An interesting nuance or at least how I understood it.  The idea of racing was not to seize elite status but, to race for myself. Race as a challenge; a way to get more involved in the club; a way to meet more people. Everyone around me was receptive to this idea. I started to work on race starts, and being able to row racing distances.

Race Day

The regatta Bill and I enter was a recreational one hosted by our club. The water was awful that day.  It was windy and choppy.  At one point a coach remarked we would likely not be in the water but, it was a regatta.  But, remember, if you wait for the perfect day you will never go rowing. We rowed. It was too choppy to do a race start. The only goal was to make it to the end and not flip the boat. Just keep rowing!  We made it to the finish line. There was apparently an issue, our time was lost. I am pretty sure we lost. I was not really focusing on other boats just my boat and moving to the finish line.  When we got off the water there was a reception with social to follow.  I rowed a race, I met some new people and I left feeling better than I had in a long time.

Changing the Tide: Rowing as a metaphor for life

As someone who studies the workings of societies and social dynamics it is hard for me to believe that an individual’s success is not the collective sum of their social position and the resources they have access too.  I understand concepts of “positive thinking” or that individuals have total control over their destiny to be deeply flawed mired with classism and an erasure of systemic oppression. While I maintain these assertions to be true; acknowledging that even the opportunity to both try, and then continue rowing is made possible through a complex network of my own privilege and resources. I am forever, grateful that the opportunity to row and to race with Bill has reminded me: not to limit myself through my own expectations. Not to wait for the perfect day to try something and despite the choppy water and the ups and downs to keep rowing best you can; even if you are scared, even if you have to stop for a time. Rowing reminded me of my own resilience and ability to change courses even when the water is rough.  I am forever grateful to the great coaching staff and my doubles partner.

Getting ready at the dock! #adaptiverowing #adaptivesport #row #rowing #summer #summer2016

A post shared by Samantha Walsh (@walshsam) on

 

 

Mommy and Me: Childcare as an Access Issue (Guest Post)

Sometime in the hazy overnight hours of my son’s first weeks of life, I decided to become a runner. I place the blame squarely on postpartum hormones that conjured up the words “role model” and sent me into a life-changing panic. I chose running because I bought into the dominant narrative of fitness that includes running as an Acceptable Aerobic Activity for Ladies. But that’s a post for another day.

Prior to this moment, my fitness experiences were limited to a few years trying to make a roller derby team, a handful of fitness videos, paying for gym memberships that I didn’t use, and a brief stint with a boot camp program. In other words, if I wanted to commit to lasting change in order to model a fit life for my son, I had to start from scratch. I Googled “exercise after pregnancy” and “fitness tips for new parents.” Advice ranged from “hire a personal trainer” to “take advantage of post-partum exercise videos.” One article suggested that I could walk up and down the stairs during “those precious 20-minute nap times.” Other articles suggested exercising with my baby by taking him out for a walk around the neighborhood or following along one of many “mommy and me” workout tutorials available on YouTube.

In the beginning, I considered this sound counsel and happily packed up the stroller for our daily walk around the neighborhood. I made a habit of wearing him in a sling while I did my powerwalking video to lull him into an afternoon nap. I congratulated myself for such efficient multitasking. When I was ready, I borrowed a jogging stroller and added running intervals to our walks. I joined a gym with complimentary childcare so I could add strength training to my routine. When I learned about a beginner’s running program sponsored by my local running club, I had to make sure my husband was free to mind the baby before I signed up. It was during one of my first training runs that I realized how privileged I was to have this time to myself, and that time alone to exercise should not be a privilege.

It is well documented that women bear an unfair burden when it comes to childcare responsibilities, and I definitely felt the pressure. None of the articles I read about exercise and new moms included advice like “find out if your gym offers childcare” or “schedule time to exercise when a family member or friend is available to care for your baby.” Consider the answer to the question “What are some ways to start exercising?” from the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology: “When you are ready to start exercising, walking is a great way to get back in shape. Walking outside has an added bonus because you can push your baby in a stroller.” As pragmatic and useful as this advice might be, it assumes that mom is already caring for the baby, and that incorporating an infant into your (perhaps new) exercise routine is a desirable default.*

In some cases, including mine, taking a stroll with the baby in those first weeks can offer additional benefits (like battling boredom) and is likely less effort than finding a babysitter to take a walk. But as my son grew, it became more difficult to include him in my workout plans even though I was still responsible for coming up with a solution and making concessions. I felt frustrated with the few options I had. Do I take him with me on a training run even though it will slow me down? Should I try to organize a childcare co-op with other running moms? Which is worse—the logistical nightmare of taking a squirmy toddler to an early morning race, or the guilt of depriving him of time with me, the fresh spring morning air, and a chance to see a squirrel? Childcare became an issue of putting aside what I needed from a workout (focus, adult conversation, and/or SILENCE) or dealing with additional pressure rather than a choice between equitable solutions.

Certainly, modeling an active lifestyle by bringing my son to exercise events when I can has its benefits, but despite my best intentions, not all gyms have childcare, not all races are stroller-friendly, and weekday evening group training runs always conflict with bedtime. My son is now an active preschooler, which makes it more difficult to include him in my fitness plans. In part, this difficulty comes from his limited attention span and desire to do anything other than sit in the stroller for an hour. Still, it warms my heart when he gets excited about a kids’ fun run, or says he wants to “look for our running friends” when we drive near our familiar park trail route. It seems that my efforts have yielded some positive outcomes for his perception of how exercise contributes to our quality of life, but I wish the decisions on when and how to include him were easier to make.

There are no easy solutions given the wide range of variables that make exercise and childcare a complex personal issue, but I think that it is important to acknowledge that childcare can be a legitimate (and often unfairly gendered) access barrier in our fitness communities. Parents who want to incorporate exercise into their lives can benefit from being supported by having fair choices about if, how, and when to make fitness a family affair.

 

*The “walk outside” advice also makes a lot of other assumptions like, 1) you have a stroller, sling, etc., 2) you have access to a safe outdoor space with sidewalks or paved paths, 3) you are able to walk when another activity would be more suitable for your health needs, and 4) etc etc etc. There are many more intersectional access issues to consider when talking about childcare and exercise.

A child wearing sunglasses in a stroller with snacks, a water bottle, and a book.

How my son gets ready for a 5K

Kate Browne is less than 200 days away from defending her dissertation on Foucauldian notions of subjectivity in weight loss memoir. She runs slow, lifts heavy, and owns a tri singlet. You can find Kate at her online fitness home Ramp and Stair Exercise Club.

Yoga as comedy! Yoga as pleasure!

I’ve been doing yoga for about 10 years now. I began, somewhat skeptical, because others I knew were doing it; I got serious when a great new studio opened in my neighbourhood. (The Yoga Shack is now a London, Ontario institution, but it’s almost exclusively devoted to hot yoga, which I do not love. See below…)

I then tried a lot of things. I did what we might call “conveyor belt” yoga – the kind sold by  chain studios that run a pre-planned, branded “flow”– until I realised that the goal of CBY was to pack as many supplicants into the room as possible, in order to turn a profit. As a result I was getting no individual coaching – as if the instructors at those particular studios were likely to be able to coach me effectively anyway, given my challenging, specific needs (Ankylosing Spondylitis, isolated muscle strain from cycling and rowing), and the limits of their training and experience.

(Do I sound bitter? Sorry if I sound bitter. I know some CBY instructors are amazing teachers stuck on the conveyor belt. I do. But many – MANY – are not.)

Then I began practicing at a studio in east-end Toronto. My teacher there was Terrill Maguire, and she taught me three things I won’t ever forget:

  1. Yoga is for all bodies, all ages, wearing all kinds of clothing. There were physically and cognitively disabled people in our class, as well as people wearing sweatpants and T-shirts (I was one of them). There were younger people and older people. There were elderly people. Everybody was included and all bodies were considered “normal” and treated with respect and specific care.
  2. Props are useful; use them! This is, admittedly, an Iyengar Thing; the practice involves the use of props to get form right. Doing yoga incorrectly can lead to injury, just like riding a bicycle badly can lead to crashing (or, less extremely, to wasting energy and not getting enough positive benefit). Props help form; if you can’t reach the floor, no big: use a block! The normalisation of props in Terrill’s class reminded me how ashamed I secretly felt in CBY classes when I decided *not* to strain to reach the floor. And how utterly wrong that entire scenario was…
  3. Yoga can be a place of laughter. It should be a place of joy! When stuff went wrong we giggled about it. We tried again, of course, but the laughter broke the tension, loosened our bodies, lifted our hearts.

I left Toronto (and Ontario) in 2012 to move to the UK. Once settled there, I joined a chain fitness club that had, remarkably, some really great, independent yoga instruction attached to it. I found a class that I can’t describe as anything other than challenging: it involved me learning to do Crow for real, and at one point I almost did a tripod headstand (the “almost” is the key bit here). There were no props in this class, and the instructor was neither funny nor forgiving; this wasn’t chain yoga of any kind, though, and I learned from the class to push my practice to a new level of challenge and start attempting inversions.

Last year, I took a fresh leap of faith and spent 10 days in an ashram in Kerala, practicing 4+ hours of yoga a day. I had never before been the kind of person who could imagine herself at an ashram, let alone at one in India; I soon realised, though, that the regimented  days married to an otherwise relaxed life-way suited me well. I quickly befriended my roommate, another woman unaccustomed to the ashram life (a lawyer from Mexico City), and we worked together on aspects of the house yoga practice we found difficult, supporting each other as yogi partners in the open-air main hall.

(It was moving, and spectacular, and peaceful, and the food was simple but incredible. I’d go back anytime – right now in fact.)

When I came home (which is now the OTHER London, in Ontario), I realised I needed my practice to continue growing, and growing in the right directions, but that the options in LonON were limited. There was CBY, which I’m never going back to, and there was a pretty good independent studio, the aforementioned Yoga Shack, but it was now committed to hot yoga serving a primarily student demographic, and I just do not agree with hot yoga as a practice.

It doesn’t suit my body type, for one. I sweat a lot when I work out, and hot yoga is designed as a workout above all. When I do hot yoga, I’m instantly uncomfortable; I find holding poses properly to be difficult because my body is slippery with moisture.

For another, well – I could (and may yet) write a whole other post on the ways hot yoga encourages the mirage of weight loss on the mat (thanks, sweat!), and the detriment that causes to both yoga and the humans (especially young, female humans) who practice it.

Where to go, then? I turned to Tracy, who has been doing yoga for ages, and ended up at Yoga Centre London, an Iyengar studio with all the features I remembered from Terrill, and more. This year, I’m in a regular Friday class taught by Sue Brimner, and Sue has reminded me of all of the things I learned from Terrill were true but underappreciated in North American yoga practice on the whole:

  • That it’s about many different bodies working in harmony toward their individual needs;
  • That there will be loads of props, and that is part of the pleasure of it;
  • That sometimes – in fact, OFTEN! – we’ll laugh at how hard it is, we’ll laugh at ourselves, and then we’ll try anyway. And then we’ll laugh some more.

My favourite thing about my new practice at YCL is the extent of the accommodation available. Anyone injured, or struggling with chronic pain, is accommodated instantly, and as a matter of course. There are bolsters and planks and trestles and blankets everywhere, and instructors begin each class making sure students in special need have everything required set up perfectly for them. I’ve lost a bit of skin on both elbows recently as a result of bike injuries, and I cannot do a traditional headstand without significant pain. But no problem! YCL has a rope wall, and so I just hang, fully supported, in the inversion instead, sparing my skin the ache and strain. Best of all, we ALL hang sometimes, during our restorative practice weeks, when it’s understood that all of our bodies need a break and a bit of R&R.

And did I mention how much we laugh together? Because bodies are funny old beasts: smelly and gangly and awkward and hard to bend to the will of the titans. Iyengar yoga gets that, and gets that every body deserves the benefits of stretching and strengthening as part of a community of imperfect, normal bodies.

I couldn’t have imagined such a thing when I did my first corporate “flow” 10 years ago – and I just hope the young women in those classes now snoop around a bit, and discover that yoga is so much more than expensive stretchy pants, competitive triangles, and awkward reaches. In fact, that’s not yoga at all.

 

 

Shopping is my cardio (no, really!)

 

73eeefdf687751eed432ee48cffeb331

My mom, Linda, has lived primarily in a wheelchair since the spring of 2014; she suffers from an illness called Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus. Before her diagnosis, the disease caused her already-developing dementia to become rapidly worse; on one horribly memorable night in February 2014, while I was over from England visiting my parents, she literally forgot how to walk. (NPH causes both dementia and mobility problems.) It was nightmarish to watch.

That visit was the last time I would see her not living in a wheelchair.

Since then, mom has been through the health-care wringer: she has a neurologist, a neurosurgeon (who performed the life-changing surgery that allowed her to learn to walk again – he never doubted her), a community care access coordinator, an occupational therapist, a regular caregiver paid for by the Ontario government… the list goes on. We live in a small university town in a wealthy province, and we benefit from three major teaching hospitals and a dedicated geriatric facility all within a few minutes’ drive. So mom was set up to bounce back from the worst NPH could throw at her, and she did.

Still, she spends most of her days in her wheelchair, even now. The time it took to reach the NPH diagnosis, meet the neurosurgeon, decide on a care approach, have the surgery, and then go through rehabilitation was long, and in that time she lost a large amount of muscle strength in her legs and hips. Her long-term back condition also got much worse. These days, she walks regularly with her walker in the house as a rehab exercise, but she isn’t comfortable using the walker too frequently. She fears falling – very understandably. And she won’t walk with it outside (not yet).

This poses a challenge for her, and for my dad (her primarily caregiver), from a wellness point of view. Not walking = not walking! Not moving from the waist down, not observing the wide world around, missing out on stimulation both physical and mental. This is the primary health issue we deal with these days: how to help mom exercise, within her comfort zone, both her body and her brain.

Needless to say, we’re working on a variety of approaches. One of her favourite, though, is going shopping.

20140528_231950_fedhgga

Carrie Bradshaw: she said a lot of crap, but this ain’t a bit of it.

Back in the day, my mom was a massively active woman. When I was too lazy to get out of bed at 6am (hey! I was, like, thirteen!), she took over my paper route. She walked the dog three times a day, every day, around our neighbourhood in North Edmonton. She walked long distances without the dog, just for fun. She gardened constantly, skipping and hopping and singing her way through her chores. She was not just active, but lively.

She also liked to shop. Like, a lot. Out at the mall or the big-box grocery stores, she’d walk miles while browsing the aisles. I hope that doesn’t sound condescending, because it shouldn’t – it’s not. Shopping includes walking, bending, lifting, the bodily contortions required to change in and out of potential outfits in badly designed, teeny-tiny change rooms, and so on. There is actually a huge amount of physical labour involved in “going shopping” – among other forms of labour, too.

08f50ea97948a06040e15f520e890935

The women in the image above have tongues in cheeks, but make no mistake: our culture mocks the idea of shopping as anything more than frivolity in part in order to mock the women whose primary job it is, and has always been, to shop for their families (or for the families of those for whom they work). Our culture trivialises those women’s labour and pretends that labour isn’t integral to the workings of free-market capitalism. In fact, women as consumers have always formed the backbone of Western capitalism. And shopping has always been great physical and mental exertion. In the early days of the department store and what we might now call shopping-as-usual, the freedom to browse and buy gave women the attendant freedom to be out alone, or in small groups, on city streets without being accused of being sex workers. Really. In other words, shopping, at the beginning of the modern period (roughly circa 1900), literally gave women the freedom to walk, unmolested, in public near their homes.

(Curious to learn more? My friend Marlis Schweitzer has written a terrific book that takes up this issue, and more. Check it out here.)

All this to say: shopping is now a regular workout for mom, with me as personal trainer, and I’m thrilled about it. She gets a challenge when we get into and out of the car: this is a transfer she completes herself with the help of a portable handle that can be inserted into the side of any car door frame. She gets another challenge anytime we try on clothes, which I insist we do (even if she claims to know her size in every single outfit we pick! Every personal trainer knows that trick…). Last week, she stood up, sat down, and otherwise shimmied and manoeuvred into three different pairs of trousers while we shopped for the right fit – after climbing out of her chair and into the totally wheelchair-inaccessible change room. (Thanks, Hudson’s Bay Company. Sort of.) That was quite a bit of ab and leg work for someone who largely sits all day.

Sometimes, too, we bring her walker with us, park ourselves in a small shop or section of a department store, and she lifts herself out of her chair and browses a bit using the walker as her aid. If she becomes exhausted and cannot continue, she either sits on her walker’s built-in seat for a moment, or I simply bring the chair to where she is and she takes a break.

As important as this physical work is for mom, the mental stimulation of shopping is even more valuable. Her memory’s decline was slowed by her surgery, but it continues; she is living with dementia, which means she needs to find basic ways to be challenged, mentally, every single day. At the shops all the neat stuff for sale offers plenty of useful stimulation, as does thinking about prices and whether or not something is worth the splurge. (She’s an elderly woman in a wheelchair who worked hard all her life! I always say the splurge is worth it. Sometimes she agrees with me.) Last week we encountered a really helpful sales assistant at the perfume counter, and she gave mom a host of samples to investigate. That olfactory stimulation, too, was mental exercise.

In my first regular post on FFI a month ago I wrote about the “We’re the Superhumans” campaign for Team GB’s paralympians. Mom isn’t about to pole vault, swim, or cycle her way into any record books, but who cares? Like many of the ordinary people in that campaign’s trailer, she is carrying on with her life as she lives it now, seeking gymnastics where she can find them and hoping to enjoy herself along the way. For her, exercise has become about living as well as she can, in her body as she finds it each day, making opportunities happen when she can, and taking pleasure in the ride as much as possible (especially when I’m driving).

In fact, that’s probably what exercise should be about for all of us.

photo

My mom, Linda Solga, rocking her new autumn outfit. (Photo by Dieter Solga)

Until next month!

Kim

 

 

 

The Difference a Year Makes (Guest Post)

by Abby Eabby

It’s amazing what you can do in a year.

At this time last year, I was just getting off the cane for good, but after a long hard walk, my right leg would ache for a couple of days. That junky, piece of shit hip I’d had replaced only months before that had been jammed so high up into the pelvic socket that the joint was basically just bone grinding against bone, and because the femoral head was out of place, it seriously restricted my movement. Forget loss of muscle flexibility (that happened quite early) or the pain (which I was used to), the collision of bone stopped me from being able to take full-length strides. I couldn’t extend my leg all the way back before, and trying virtually guaranteed that my hip would start that deep, low ache that would get progressively worse through the day. By the time I was nineteen, my range of motion adducting/abducting was only thirty degrees. It’s supposed to be ninety.

Now when I walk, I can push forward hard. I can feel my glutes working and I can feel the length of the stride. No more grinding ache. No more shrieking pain. No more days as an involuntary shut-in. (I still do the voluntary shut-in thing, though. You’ll never take that away from me.) And now as I watch the Olympics, I marvel at the strong, sculpted body of the female athletes. I want those thighs, those shoulders.

I’m working on it, however slowly. I still think back to the two-day training and assessment I did back in April. I was worried about it. I didn’t know how my hip would hold up, since the muscles in my right leg are still weaker than my left, and I’d had trouble holding up a shield for more than a few minutes at a time before this. But I did it, and miraculously, the only thing that hurt were the bruises.

Now that I’m out of the re-enactment group, I keep falling off the exercise bandwagon and then jumping back on. Mostly, I’m trying to find ways to make it not feel like a burden while still gradually getting results. I’m combining light weights with light, low-impact aerobics and doing much more work to tone and strengthen my core and upper body. This is not about losing weight, however. In undergrad, I weighed about 135 pounds, and I looked good; now, I weigh 175 pounds and I fucking FEEL good.

One day I’d like to pick up a sword again, maybe get into competition fighting if I get good enough. But that’s an investment in time and money I can’t afford at this time. In the meantime, I will develop my physical strength and endurance, as I have proven time and again I have more than enough emotional strength and endurance.

I will fight like a girl. And I will win.

Abby E. is a Toronto-based freelance editor who loves science, philosophy, and speculative fiction. She is not a crazy cat lady, just a crazy lady who has cats.

Who are you calling superhuman?

Feminist friends, hello! This is my first regular post for the blog, although I’ve been guesting for Sam and Tracy for a while now. I’m honoured to have been asked to join the community, and will be contributing on the last Friday of every month.

(I also write weekly at The Activist Classroom, my own teaching blog. If you are a teacher, if you’re a performer, or if you’re just interested in issues in higher education, please check it out!)

For today’s inaugural post I’ve been inspired by the debate ongoing on the blog this week about disabled and non-disabled experiences in relation to fitness and wellness. Tracy shared some thoughts on this on Tuesday, and invited responses to the question of whether or not this blog, fitness-forward, is inherently biased toward non-disabled bodies. A range of compelling commentary has emerged.

I am a non-disabled amateur athlete (cycling and rowing) and professional theatre scholar at Western University; for me, the overlap between work and sport happens when I think critically and politically about how bodies perform, are received, and are expected to behave in social space. (Sport is, after all, a form of spectacle, a kind of performance!) So when performance work related to sport crosses my desktop or TV screen, I get especially excited, and I want to share my thoughts about it.

This week, serendipitously, exactly such a performance appeared in my Facebook feed: it’s Channel 4’s trailer for Team GB (Great Britain) ahead of the Rio Paralympics, titled “We’re The Superhumans.” Here it is:

 

I was living in London during the 2012 Olympics when the first “Superhumans” campaign emerged; for that year’s Paralympics, the slogan was “Meet the Superhumans”. (Channel 4 was the official broadcaster of the 2012 games and the agency 4creative was the marketing brain behind the campaign.) This earlier campaign was designed to address, head on, the ablest stereotype that disabled bodies are “freaks of nature”; here is a description of the project’s ethic, which comes from a case study of the campaign prepared by the advertising association D&AD (the campaign won an award from D&AD):

In August 2010, two years before London 2012, Channel 4 broadcast a documentary called ‘Inside Incredible Athletes’ – its first Paralympic-themed programming. This was supported by a marketing campaigned called ‘Freaks of Nature’ designed to challenge perceptions of disability in sport and encourage viewers to question their own prejudices.

“The intention was to change people’s attitudes and to do that we needed to take them on a journey,” Walker says. “‘Freaks of Nature’ was intended to challenge by turning the meaning of the phrase on its head. The idea was that if great athletes are considered exceptional and different, why not apply the same standard to Paralympians?”

The concept and the attitude it encapsulated provided an important part of the foundation for the campaign that would become ‘Meet the Superhumans.’

I remember feeling incredibly ambivalent about “Meet the Superhumans”, billboards for which were plastered all over London during the summer of 2012. (Although, notably, they didn’t start appearing in full force until the “main” Olympics had closed.) On the one hand: what a great idea, to reclaim the idea of the “freak” and rebrand it with the kinds of superlatives we reserve for only the most powerful among us. On the other: to call someone “superhuman” is necessarily to imply that, on some level, they are not entirely human. It’s a double-edged sword – especially for those who have historically battled the gross prejudice that they are indeed not quite human.

Meet the Superhumans

A still from the original “Meet the Superhumans” campaign, 2012.

Obviously, the first campaign had its heart in the right place, and I salute it for that reason. But I am also glad Channel 4 didn’t stand still when it returned to the “superhuman” handle for 2016, and instead chose to rethink some of the first campaign’s assumptions.

What do I like about the new campaign? A couple of things.

First, I love that it’s jazzy, warm, enormously fun. (Damn, it makes me want to dance!) Singer Tony Dee belts out the Sammy Davis Jr. song “Yes I Can” with tongue in cheek and twinkle in eye as 140 disabled people, athletes and not, pass across the screen, dancing their way through life, sport, art, and more. In case you thought you might want to pity these folks, well, don’t. Don’t gasp in awe, either! They know that’s your impulse, and they have no time for it. They are too busy swinging and grooving – and getting on with doing stuff.

Second, I appreciate that the emphasis in the new trailer is not only on exceptional sports figures, but on humans of all kinds doing ordinary human things, from brushing teeth to flying a plane to bouncing a baby. The affection the camera produces for these quotidian acts isn’t sentimental, either: the pace and the cheek (lots of winking!) of the music balances a certain amount of awe with plenty of “whatever”. (As a non-disabled person, I’m astonished to see a disabled person fly a plane – just because I never have before. Now I know!) In fact, the music yanks us quickly from “awe” to “whatever” and back again deliberately, as it punctuates the shifts with pauses and percussion, drawing attention to them. That call-and-response style has the effect of reminding us to stop being so awed already, and instead to regard all the stuff we see in the trailer as, well… pretty normal for the people on the screen – who are all pretty rocking human, after all.

2813

Tony Dee grooves it out. Channel 4 spotted him on Youtube!

What doesn’t work so well for me? I would really like to see a couple of vignettes in the trailer that include both disabled and non-disabled bodies working together. The trailer rightly makes disabled bodies its focus, but it doesn’t take the opportunity to show collaboration across bodily difference, which is a shame. (The only non-disabled body in the piece, as far as I can see, is the cranky headmaster who tells the young wheelchair athlete he “can’t” – only to be proven definitively wrong, of course.) If we are to think more globally about access to and opportunities in social space for all human bodies in the future, representing cross-ability collaboration is essential. It gives the firm impression that all human bodies count equally, and helps to demonstrate that equal access doesn’t mean “the same thing for all of us”, but rather “different stuff according to our needs that lets us all do the same things to the best of our abilities”.

There’s a “fait accompli” feel to the trailer that is, of course, part of its jazzy, groovy feel, but that also covers up access issues in troubling ways. It’s reasonable to argue that it’s not Channel 4’s job to show us the complexity of ability politics in a trailer that is designed to get a predominantly non-disabled population to regard bodies with other abilities more positively and fairly; one thing at a time. But it’s also reasonable to argue that it *is* their responsibility not to make disabled lives seem somehow “naturally” easy in a world biased toward non-disabled subjects and their bodily experiences. Because that just ain’t true.

So that’s my verdict on “We’re the Superhumans”: better than last time, inspiring and loads of fun, but not perfect – and more work remains to be done. (Luckily, the 2020 Paralympics are just around the corner!)

I offer this reading in full awareness that, as a non-disabled woman, I’m part of the demographic Channel 4 is targeting and trying to warm-and-fuzzy, and that my embodiment makes my position as a reader partial and imperfect in any case. Which is, of course, why I’d love to hear YOUR take on the trailer, too. Please share in the comments below!

Kim