‘Against All Odds’ – Active Hands featured on Unilad

Kate Farley, known as ‘Girl boxer with CP’, is one determined athlete.  Keen to train hard and push her boundaries, Kate met with personal trainer, Matthew Furnell.  She quickly showed an interest in boxing and together they adapted their workouts to develop her passion, with their eyes set firmly on the Paralympics.

Kate uses a wide range of gym equipment to complement her training and is able to access this thanks to her General Purpose gripping aids.  On her instagram account (GirlboxerwithCP), Kate explains,

« Love pushing my abilities to discover different pieces of apparatus I can go on.  Again, this is all thanks to my hand aids from Active Hands which allow me to hold onto anything with ease whilst I train.  Always be determined and never say never! »

Now, Kate’s story has been picked up by Unilad who have produced this documentary, detailing Kate’s impressive training regime.  Check out her story below (or if you’re pushed for time and just want to see our gripping aids in action, scroll to around 3 minutes 50!)


Johanna Smith

Going for Goals – Alex Turley

Alex Turley embodies all that we at Active Hands strive for; determined, strong-willed and very, very active! Alex is a 26 year old from Essex who is currently following her interest in animals by studying for an equine science degree. Not content with just studying however, Alex also trains and competes in horse-riding (including dressage), swimming, wheelchair racing and regularly completes weights-based workouts in the gym.

Born prematurely, Alex’s doctors hypothesise that some of her neuropathic pathways did not fully form: a condition so rare, it remains unnamed. As a teenager, Alex lost the use of her left arm and was paralysed for a year, before finding a surgeon who could help. Four years ago, Alex also lost the use of her left leg and her foot has twisted from dystonia.

Although she has regained a lot of the function in her arm, she still struggles with grip, in particular holding heavy items in her hand or raising her arms above her head whilst gripping.

But none of these challenges have prevented Alex from taking an active part in a wide range of sports. She began swimming at a young age and continues to find it relaxing, as well as a great way to exercise without needing to use her legs. She also rides with Barrow Farm RDA and takes part in dressage competitions. “I enjoy [these] as it gives me clear goals to work towards and a sense of achievement.”

Most recently, having seen a facebook post asking people to trial wheelchair racing, Alex has begun training at Harlow racing club, coached by Richard Chiassaro. “I’ve been doing it for a few months now and have found it difficult but rewarding. It gives me some bigger goals to set myself.”

To support her achievements in these sports, Alex’s physio suggested she try weight training. Having joined a new gym and eager to begin, Alex was introduced to Active Hands. She quickly found that the General Purpose gripping aid gave her the confidence to carry out her exercises without worrying at all that she would drop the weights or lose grip on a bar, which would cause more injuries.

“When I first used the gripping aid, I found them to fit comfortably, which is important to me. Once they were done up around a dumbbell they felt secure and didn’t slip, move or undo. All these things have given me the confidence to trust in the aid, especially inside the gym.”

Over the next year, Alex is looking forward to competing in the Dressage Anywhere Championships and is hoping to gain funding for her own race chair and rollers to enable her to progress in her newest sport. If you would like to read more about Alex, or to help her fund her race chair, you can find her on facebook, her own website, or head to her Go Fund Me page.

Alex is clearly a very motivated and determined athlete who is achieving big things. But her advice for others is simple.

“Remember that everyone starts somewhere and everyone has at one stage been at the beginning and new to their sport or activity. Give yourself goals to work towards so that when you complete these it’s an accomplishment.”

Jo Smith

Reach for our latest product.

Always on the lookout for new, well-designed and high-quality solutions for those with reduced hand function, we were especially excited when we came across our latest product.

Reaching and picking up items from the floor, or up high, can be really tricky when you have reduced hand function, and potentially reduced balance or core strength too. How many times have you dropped keys, or coins, or needed to grab an item from the fridge, or a high shelf? It can be a real challenge and we know many people look for a reacher tool to assist them. However, these can be heavy, weak and crucially involve a ‘gripping’ action to operate.

Our new reacher/grabber is uniquely designed by and for users with little or no hand function. Unlike other reachers on the market, this one requires no ‘gripping’ action and is operated simply by flexing the wrist.

Precise enough to pick up small items such as a coin, pen, set of keys or allen key, yet strong enough to handle larger objects such as reaching your coat from a hook or lifting milk cartons from the fridge – this reacher will lift items up to 3kg (6.6lbs) in weight.

The reacher is fully adjustable to fit the width of your forearm, wrist and palm, enabling you to comfortably pick up items dropped on the floor, or placed out of reach, with no need to grip at all.  It comes ready for use as either a right or left handed version (although it is possible to change the reacher from one to the other if desired).


Gareth tested out our new reacher when he was last in the office (in fact, he loved it so much, he even brought it along to our staff Christmas meal!). Check out his video below for a great demonstration of its capabilities.


The reacher is brand new to market and we are very excited to be one of the first companies worldwide to offer it for sale. This is by far the best solution we have ever seen for this frustrating problem and is available on our website – – alongside a wide range of solutions for overcoming reduced hand function.

Jo Smith


Taking action

Oksana is the person behind Association Kondor – a website that aims to provide detailed information to assist disabled people in planning their travels.  We spoke with her about her own disability, rehabilitation and how her new outlook has led her to create her website.

In 2013, after sustaining a rare kind of spinal cord injury resulting in tetraplegia, Oksana found herself facing a new world of disability; « My family and I found ourselves alone against the medical world; alone with our questioning and alone in the process of adapting to the constraints of everyday life. »  Passionate about dancing, she struggled to adjust when doctors could provide few answers about her disability or rehabilitation.  ‘I felt I could never be myself anymore if I had to stop my favourite hobby. »

After two years, Oksana began to look around for a new sport.  Having tried several adapted sports, she still could not find one that really motivated her; until a friend suggested she joined her for a Crossfit session.  « It was a revelation for me because I had never found a sport before which stimulated all my muscles like this. »  After just a short period of training, she began to feel stronger and this translated into feeling better overall in her everyday life.

As a result of her disability, Oksana cannot close one hand.  This began to limit her crossfit training and so she began to look around for something that could help.  Whilst browsing instagram, she came across the account of AdapttoPerform; an athlete we have featured before who creates adapted workouts for people with disabilities.

Ben at AdapttoPerform using our General Purpose gripping aids to workout.

Here she saw Active Hands gripping aids in action and after a year of searching, hoped she had found the thing to help.

« When I put Active Hands on for the first time, I realised that I could do everything, like carrying a weight of ten kilos with what I used to call my ‘useless hand’.  And above all, I can do the same exercise with both my arms. »

In addition to her sport, Oksana is passionate about travelling and meeting new people.  As she began to feel more confident in her rehabilitation, her mind turned again to travelling and she began to plan a trip with her sister.  However, she struggled to find reliable information about travel for wheelchair users and the accessibility of destinations.  After this first trip, she decided to create something to make the life of people with disabilities easier when travelling. 

« Taking action became our creed and we decided to create the Association Kondor.  It’s a website that gathers useful information to provide solutions to many of the troubles disabled people face when they travel.  The association wishes to integrate disabled people fully into society, but allow them to have comfort and mobility in as many destinations as possible. »

As her project grows, Oksana is keen to work alongside other organisations to organise projects such as sports weeks that will help disabled people to connect and motivate each other.  She remains determined to encourage others through her website and instagram account (iwheelfly) and explains, « sometimes it takes time to find our way, to find our sport and to find our motivation but if in the end you find your own passion, you will do whatever you want.  Even if at first it is difficult to imagine yourself in a wheelchair, now you have to be able to look at yourself in the mirror and see how strong and motivated you are.  Your life doesn’t stop: you just have to reinvent it. »

Jo Smith








To Dubai and beyond

An EIGHT-hour flight, plus waits and transfers either side sure sounds like a long way… but for Rob
and Clare, it sounds like their plans for the week!


After months of tough training, our director Rob is due to compete in the Dubai marathon on Friday. He’s won the race a whopping FOUR times in the past and, despite increased popularity meaning that there are a lot of higher category racers taking part, the Dubai marathon remains a firm favourite since it’s fast, flat and a lovely break from the English winter!


We know that in the aftermath of Christmas, in the season of New Year’s resolutions, you probably want to know how Rob trained for this marathon.  Well, it certainly wasn’t easy. Rob finishes his track training (shorter distance) after the last of his summer races, which allows him to focus almost entirely on training for Dubai. Marathon training consists of lots more miles with extended efforts and interval training on the track, road and indoors on the rollers.  It’s tough and often
cold training. When he’s training in the gym, Rob swears by the Active Hands gym pack deluxe – EVERYTHING gets used.


But this year, Rob isn’t just going to Dubai to compete. There’s even more excitement for Active Hands – our marketing manager Clare is flying out to meet Rob after his marathon, and on Monday 29 January 2018 they’ll both head to Arab Health, the largest healthcare event in the Middle East.


Rob and Clare will be predominantly looking for new resellers, but they’re also checking out Arab Health to see if it’s somewhere Active Hands should exhibit in the future… exciting stuff!


Active Hands are delighted to be joining over 30 businesses from across the Midlands Engine as part of a trade delegation to Arab Health 2018. We’ll be at the Midlands Engine Stand, Hall 7 (H7A51) – if you’re around, come say hi!


It really is incredible to think that the gripping aids which Rob and his Mum designed to help him with day-to-day tasks have been so invaluable to so many people that here at Active Hands we can keep expanding our horizons.


Stay tuned for updates as Rob and Clare network and enjoy the Dubai sun! And let’s wish Rob good luck for a quick finish!

Jo Walters

Finding your own way

« Fiona has a feisty spirit and never lets anything stand in her way.  She always tries her hardest and is determined to not let anything stop her. »  Anne-Marie describes her 8 year old daughter with well-deserved pride and here at Active Hands we love reading about our customers’ inventiveness and determination.

Fiona is 8 years old and loves gymnastics, ballet and tap.  She was born missing fingers on her right hand but has not allowed this to limit her ambitions.  Fiona has been taking gymnastics classes for 5 years.  Her « bouncy personality » and natural flexibility seemed a great fit with gymnastics training, with the bonus that it offered the chance to strengthen both sides of her body.  This year she began to compete with the YMCA gymnastics team.

Keen to keep in touch with resources and support available for those with limb difference, Anne-Marie uses the Lucky Fin Project website and it was through a post from their founder, Molly Stapleman, that Anne-Marie discovered Active Hands’ Limb Difference gripping aid.

« I love love love the grip.  It’s amazing.  I really liked that the grip was created specifically for someone born with a limb difference.  There is not much that Fiona can’t do, but there are times when she has to figure out her own way to do things.  A perfect example of this is her routine on the gymnastics bar – she is finding her own way of doing her chin up pullover and cast back hip circle – and your grip is the perfect tool. »

Fiona continues to make great progress in gymnastics and her gripping aid has « made a big difference. »  It is the first time she has been able to hang with the full weight of her body from any bar and so the gripping aid is enabling her to strengthen muscles that she couldn’t previously train due to her limb difference.  Anne-Marie explains, « I have seen a big difference in her arm strength in just the few weeks we have been using it. »

Having got to grips with her limb difference aid in training, Fiona is excited to test it out in competition this weekend.  She also has plans to use her gripping aid when kayaking and paddleboarding with her family: and we have a feeling that this determined young lady will go on to find many more adventurous uses for it!

Our specifically designed Limb Difference gripping aid only launched in September last year and so we were especially pleased to hear from Fiona and her mum that it is already making such a difference.  If you have limb difference affecting your hands, check out our gripping aids and range of other products at and see what you can achieve.

Jo Smith



Tony’s Story

I first began talking to Tony in December of 2015; he had recently purchased some Active Hands gripping aids and was interested in picking my brains about my life with spinal cord injury, the abilities I had regained, and how I used my Active Hands aids in everyday life. Through our interactions and via social media, I have seen just how far Tony has come in the last two years and the ever-increasing number of exercises he is able to do using his Active Hands aids. When I contacted him recently to get some information with which to base this article on, I did so expecting a few lines about his life, his injury and his progress. What I got was an extremely open and honest account of life with a spinal injury, the emotional effects it can have on a person, and how the right attitude and outlook can make all the difference.

This is Tony’s story:

Originally from a small town in central Texas, Tony had always been passionate about keeping fit and active; with hobbies such as scuba diving, hiking, motorbike riding, and home remodelling. On top of all that, he was a martial artist of some 30 years who had left his full time job in order to follow his dream of owning and operating an Academy in his native state of Texas. At the time of his injury however, Tony had relocated to Seattle, WA, where he planned to open a new Academy once he had furthered his knowledge of Brazilian jujitsu! In the meantime, he was working for Lowe’s home improvement store and it was whilst at work one fateful day in 2015 that Tony’s life changed forever.

“You know it’s crazy that a lot of things in your life can happen to you and you can only remember about the time it happens. But when something that is as catastrophic as this happens you can remember the date and the time like it was yesterday.”

Tony was helping transport a 400lb gazebo, which had been stacked onto a utility dolly, to a truck for delivery. As he and his co-workers leaned the dolly back, the weight of the box took over, causing it to topple and strike Tony on the head. It only fell about a foot at the most before hitting him, however the weight of the box and force of the impact were enough to push his chin down with such severity that it broke his neck at C4 level.

Moments later, all he could feel were his head and shoulders on the floor and all he could move was his left arm. He knew the injury was bad, really bad, but he distinctly remembers managing to stay calm until the paramedics arrived and he was transported to Harborview Trauma Hospital.

“I just remember saying ouch and the next thing I knew the box and dolly were laying on top of me. I just collapsed like a ragdoll. The next thing I knew they were picking it up off of me telling me to crawl out from under it. I knew at that moment that I was paralyzed.”

The next thing he knew, he was waking up in ICU surrounded by tubes and monitors, unable to speak or move his hands, and at that moment he did begin to get worried and afraid. He spent three weeks under heavy sedation in ICU before moving to the rehab ward; however in the remaining seven weeks before discharge, most of his physiotherapy took place in bed, having developed a pressure sore whilst in ICU. Fortunately, throughout all this time and beyond, he was surrounded by his siblings and the fantastic set of friends he had made during his short time in Seattle, and Tony is the first to admit that without them “I don’t know what I would’ve done”.

Upon discharge, Tony was forced to move into a skilled nursing facility as there was no feasible way he could move back into his multilevel house. It was around this time that a realisation kicked in for Tony, that life as he knew it would never be the same…

“For the first time in my life I believe I truly felt lost. Not knowing what to do next. All my life I always felt in control, but now I didn’t feel like I had a handle on anything. Having to rely on other people for everything. Having the mind of an adult but the needs an infant. Believe me when I say that is the worst feeling I have ever had in my life.”

However, rather than let these feelings overwhelm him and cause him to fall into depression and self-pity, Tony instead decided to fight back, grab the bull by the horns and put all his effort into his daily physio and occupational therapy.


Upon arriving at the facility, Tony was still very weak, only able to lift his right arm a few inches whilst slouched in his chair. During these early stages, his rehab mostly consisted of using ankle weights on his wrists and working on his tenodesis. However, as Tony began to regain strength and movement, he soon required heavier weights but was unable to physically grip dumb-bells and found it extremely frustrating having to get them bandaged to his hands every time. This is when, following some online research, he came across Active Hands; and after watching the gym workout video Tony knew these were what he needed to “push [his] strength to the next level”.


“I ordered them just as soon as I got through watching the video… I can’t thank Active Hands enough for making such a great product.”

After a year of building up his strength at the skilled nursing facility, Tony was discharged and moved into his own apartment; giving him a huge feeling of independence but at the same time filling him with nerves, as spending so long in hospitals and nursing facilities has a tendency to somewhat institutionalise a person, something I can certainly attest to! However, his initial nervousness soon turned to excitement and after a month of settling in, he began his outpatient therapy at a facility called Pushing Boundaries, a facility he still frequents to this day, getting put through his paces three times a week.


Pushing Boundaries has certainly lived up to its name in Tony’s case, as in conjunction with his Active Hands gripping aids, they have pushed him to his limits, enabling him to engage in every kind of arm-related exercise imaginable and helping him to regain a level of strength and movement that appeared lost initially. He uses his gripping aids every time he visits Pushing Boundaries and they’re showing no signs of wearing out. In fact, the facility loved his Active Hands aids so much that they purchased several pairs that they use with their clients every day!

“I put [the gripping aids] through a beating and I mean a beating because I also use them as boxing gloves. Not only do I use at the gym but at the house also holding a broom, vacuum cleaner. The summer is coming on, it will be exciting to see what I can use them for outside.”

Fast forward to the present day, and when he’s not working out at the gym, Tony can be found caring for the bonsai trees he has began to collect; his positive outlook and rugged determination to rebuild his life, showing no signs of abating. His sole focus remains his rehabilitation, and also wearing out his Active Hands equipment – good luck with that! His ever increasing strength, abilities and levels of independence have resulted in an overall increase in self-confidence. He now feels more at ease when using a manual wheelchair and has set himself the goal of eventually using it full time. Another future goal is to get back behind the wheel and start driving again, something I think every wheelchair user will agree is wholly liberating and opens up a whole world of new possibilities!

As far as dreams are concerned, Tony would love to get back in the water and scuba dive, as well as work out in the yard; both completely achievable. However, his main focus at present is spending more time on the mat, teaching martial arts from his chair; something he describes as more of a way of life than anything else.

“When a person has a strong sense of confidence there’s nothing that they can’t achieve.”

As far as advice he would give to others in a similar position, Tony states that after going through a life changing injury such as this, it is easy to fall into a shell; but that you must resist this temptation, seek out help and don’t try to take everything on alone. Despite doctors telling him that things got easier after the first year, Tony found that things got tougher; as the first year was so taken up with hospitals and recovery that he didn’t have time to really sit and process the full extent of what had happened and the long, hard journey that lay ahead. Tony knew he had two options: Either allow himself to sink into self-pity or get up and fight.


Tony’s martial arts background meant that he was used to having mentors, and so he took a similar approach with his spinal injury, seeking out people both locally as well as on social media and SCI forums. Meeting with and speaking to a wide variety of people who were either personally affected by spinal cord injury or professionally involved with it provided a huge boost to Tony, letting him know he was not alone in this and giving him advice, ideas, goals and a positive outlook for the future.

To me, Tony exemplifies the never give up, can do attitude. To come so far, both mentally and physically, in such a short time and after such a serious injury is a true credit to the human spirit. With his drive, determination and positivity, I have absolutely no doubt that Tony will not only get stronger and more able, but will continue to craft out a successful, fulfilling life for himself, and we here at Active Hands are proud to have been able to play a small part in this.


In the meantime, I’ll leave you with the five motivational sentences that Tony created and pinned to his wall, where he can see them every morning when he wakes up:


  1. I will begin every day with a positive thought.
  2. I will attack each day with tenacity.
  3. I will overcome all obstacles that lay before me.
  4. I am always moving forwards; mind, body and spirit.
  5. I will end each day reviewing my successes no matter how small.

Gareth Herridge

« Life is for living! » – Ben Clark’s story

Ben Clark is the man behind the YouTube channel ‘AdaptToPerform’ and head of strength, conditioning and sports science for a performance swimming club, working with some of the country’s best swimmers. This month, we’ve been chatting to him about his work, how and why he started his channel and what he hopes to achieve, for himself and others.

Adapt To Perform aims to make fitness accessible to all.

In 2010, Ben ran into the sea, “Baywatch style”, and dove into a wave where the water was shallower than he expected. He hit his head and broke his neck, resulting in paralysis from below the chest, including his hands. Drawing on his 10 years of experience as a professional swimmer, he was determined to get through his recovery with physical and mental strength. “Knowing already how to deal with failure etc massively helped me.”

Keen to make the most of the wealth of information on the spinal unit, it wasn’t long before Ben was in the gym and looking for ways to regain his strength. It was here that Ben came across Active Hands gripping aids. “I thought they were a great yet simple design and over the years have found how well made and durable they are!”

Once out of the unit, Ben continued to enjoy fitness and soon decided to start his YouTube channel. “I’ve always had an interest in sports, health and fitness and getting to share my knowledge is very rewarding.” Through his social media channels, Ben aims to, “adapt workouts, nutrition, advice, motivation for any and all situations” so that working out and staying fit is accessible for all.

Ben’s videos provide hints and tips for effective workouts.

Active Hands’ range of gripping aids are instrumental in enabling Ben to workout in a regular gym, without the need for specialist or adaptive equipment. Using a combination of the General Purpose, Looped Exercise Aids and D-Rings, Ben’s workouts are varied and challenging.

“When I first started out I just had the [General Purpose] aids. These are great and were the perfect starter. After a while I got the looped exercise aids. These were a great addition. Taking the weight off my hands and into my wrists for cable machines meant I had more control and [was] able to step up my routine. The D-rings are a new addition but a welcome one. The added durability is really good. I still use all 3 [gripping aids] and 7 years later the gloves still look good! [I] put them through some serious abuse!”

Ben uses our Looped Exercise aids for a single-arm pull down.

Ben posts workout videos, hints, tips and inspirational photos to his instagram, facebook and YouTube channels and is gaining followers from all over the world.

“I just believe life is for living. To some exercise might seem pointless or just for looks. But for me it gives a sense of purpose and allows me to live my life to the full! You get both a rush of endorphins and a meditative effect. You basically can’t lose!”

So what’s next for Ben? Right now, he is working on qualifications to support his work. He recently passed level 1 swim coaching and is preparing for level 2. He is also completing his personal trainer qualifications with the aim of enhancing his work with the swimming club and also his workout videos.

To follow Ben, find him on YouTube, facebook, instagram or twitter under ‘AdaptToPerform’.

Ben’s videos are fantastic examples of what can be achieved, in partnership with Active Hands gripping aids, without the need for a specialist gym or adaptive equipment. With a little bit of knowledge, some motivation and a gripping aid or two in your bag, any gym is accessible to you.

If you would like to share your pictures or videos of your workouts, we’d love to see what you’re up to. Send them to and let’s spread the word!


Jo Smith

Finding confidence and independence

Yemina is an active, fun and smart twelve year old from Canada who loves to read or hang out with friends.  She also has cerebral palsy which affects all of her movement and her level of independence.  Her mum, Shoshana, explains that Yemina’s cerebral palsy makes any activity involving movement a challenge, but particularly those involving hand control.  « She has a lot of extra movement through her arms and hands when she tries to use them. »  This extra movement means that pushing buttons, grasping items or maintaining a grip of them can be really challenging for Yemina.

For years, Yemina and her family experimented with different gripping aids, buying from companies and even inventing their own, but with little success.  Then they came across Active Hands gripping aids and had « immediate positive impressions. »  Shoshana explains that the Active Hands gripping aids produced instant success where the other aids had struggled.  Initially, Yemina tried them out on her bike and walker and once she realised she could trust these aids to hold her safely, she rapidly became « more confident. »  Now she could take part in activities that were previously such a struggle, and not only was she enjoying them, she could take part without help and with far better posture and alignment.

A few years on and Yemina is now the proud owner of several pairs of our small pink general purpose aids which she leaves with various pieces of equipment; ready for action.  She continues to use them to hold onto her bike and walker handle bars and also uses them to grip the bar of her treadmill and various pieces of gym equipment at her school.  These aids have become a « life saver », enabling Yemina to exercise independently.  Her mum explains, « [Yemina] uses her walker all day every day at school, so the fact that she can be in there on her own and using her legs is huge. »  And the benefits extend to the whole family;

« [Active Hands gripping aids] have made a definite difference to her independence and well-being, in addition to giving me my hands back when taking her out for a bike ride or walk around the mall. »

Yemina’s ‘can do’ attitude embodies what we at Active Hands strive to help people to fulfil.  It is so exciting to see what a difference the right product can make to people’s independence, well-being and ability to live an active life.  It is also clear what an impact this level of independence can have on wider families and friends; whether its ‘hands-free’ time as you no longer need to hold onto walking frames, or better access to family activities such as bike-riding or strolling around the shops together.  So what is it that you and your family would like to be doing together?  Check out our wide range of products and see how we can help you to get active independently.


Jo Smith






Does Paralympic sport benefit the right athletes?

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 29: The Paralympic Cauldron burns during the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympics at the Olympic Stadium on August 29, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Paralympic sport has come a long way from its humble beginnings at the Stoke Mandeville spinal cord injury unit in England just after the Second World War.  This small sporting event, which at the time used competition between those with similar injuries to assist the rehabilitation of wheelchair users, is now a worldwide phenomenon.  The movement now boasts a 4 yearly event working in conjunction, and very much on a par, with the Olympic Games.  In addition many of the individual sports have their own international sporting events governed by the IPC (International Paralympic Committee) and run separate international event calendars.  Competitors in these events are often household names and on many occasions able bodied and para sports run events alongside each other as is currently happening with the IPC para athletics championship in London.  The transformation of disability sports has been amazing as has its influence on the quality of the lives of disabled people in general over the same time frame.  However in more recent years is the direction of movement for those involved in para sport the correct one?  Is it time we had a serious and perhaps difficult conversation about who benefits and who doesn’t from how things have changed with Paralympic sport?  Are we still helping those who the movement was set up to help?  And while the success of the movement in general is a really good thing, do the inevitable commercial pressures of this success actually have some negative impacts on inclusion and participation of those with disabilities?  There are a number of areas in relation to this that could be discussed, however I would like primarily to give my thoughts on what I see as the direction of travel of the Paralympic movement.  Are we seeing those with more severe disabilities losing out to those with less severe disabilities?   Is there enough representation for those who are much further from having fully working bodies than those who have smaller impairments and if so, why is this?  I will move onto my thoughts around this subject later in the article but to begin with I think it might also be worth discussing another area – classification, to understand more about what is happening.  Importantly I don’t want this article to be a criticism of the Paralympics and para sport itself, governing bodies within it or individuals (athletes or otherwise).  What I do want to do is begin a discussion about where we think it should be going in the future.  This discussion might be difficult to hear but I think it is one that ultimately needs to take place, and take place now.

Before I let you know about my thoughts on all this, a bit of background on me would probably help.  I have a C5/6 incomplete spinal cord injury and I live in the UK.  Over many years I have competed to a decent level in wheelchair rugby and wheelchair racing and I have also been involved in other disability sports.  I can only speak from my personal experience and from knowledge gained from others I have met in that time. Although I have been selected to represent team GB in the past I want to make it clear I am not writing this out of frustration for not being selected for my national squad for any particular event – I wasn’t where I needed to be in the world rankings for my classification to achieve selection and I understand that.



Classification adjustments and the knock on effect.

Classification is always going to be a difficult area and will always have controversy around it.  There has been some controversy regarding Paralympic classification in recent times.  It is a situation pretty much exclusive to the disability sport movement and is there for a very good reason.  It was designed to allow people of a similar physical ability to compete against others with roughly the same physical ability.  It is not a perfect system and there will always be those who benefit from being at the top end of a particular classification bracket and also those who may find it harder as they find themselves in the lower end of that bracket.  I have been participating in disability sport for well over a decade now.  I am by no means an expert in classification so all I aim to do here is bring up some topics for discussion around disability classification.  I will begin with some of my own thoughts and experiences of classification in the sports I have played over the years.

My view is that in both wheelchair rugby and track racing over the last few Paralympic games, those with more severe impairment have been squeezed out the bottom of the sports they love by different disability types and borderline classification calls gradually raising the bar of who they can actually compete with. My category in racing – T52 is a mixed disability classification in which athletes who exhibit similar muscle strength and movement compete together.  In recent years the classification boundary has moved a little which has allowed athletes with different disability types but who still exhibit similar muscle strength to enter our category when they would previously have been in the category above us.  Many of these new athletes are great athletes, nice people and good friends of mine.  It is not their fault that they have been categorised the way they have and on the surface they exhibit very similar muscle activity to others in this classification.  However when you look more closely there are other differences that are important in addition to muscle strength which means things are not necessarily a level playing field.   For example those with a higher level spinal cord injury (a neck injury rather than a back injury) cannot elevate their blood pressure and heart rate to the same extent as a non spinal cord injured athlete with the same muscle strength.  There is a direct relationship between athletic performance and elevation of blood pressure and heart rate.  An athlete with the same body function and fitness but who’s heart rate and blood pressure is restricted due to their disability type will not achieve the same output as one who is not restricted in this way.  I understand that athletes of all disability types also need the opportunity to race in a category that is appropriate for their disability.  My concern is the knock on effect of adding more and more athletes to the top end of classification boundaries and how this affects those sports and who can compete in them in the long term.



I believe this has also happened in wheelchair rugby.  When I began playing wheelchair rugby it was a sport nearly exclusively played by those with spinal injuries.  In fact it was invented by quadriplegic wheelchair users in Canada as they found it difficult to take part in wheelchair basketball due to their lack of hand function and strength.  Classification for wheelchair rugby players ranges between 3.5 and 0.5 points and a team is made up of 4 players totalling no more than 8 points.  When I was first classified as a wheelchair rugby player I began as a 3.0 point review player which after a few years dropped to a 2.5 point player.  If I was classified now I would most likely come out as a 2.0 pointer.  The extent of my disability has not changed much in this time but the classification boundaries have slightly shifted.  Many players who would previously have been considered “too able” to play are now playing as higher point players which has a knock on effect throughout the whole classification system.  In many seemingly positive ways this makes the game look faster, more dynamic and exciting and adds to the diversity of which disability types can play the game but this also has negative consequences.  These classification adjustments have meant that the previous high point players are now mid-point players, those mid-point players are now lower point players.  The problem with this is that those who were previously the lower point players, the 1.0 and 0.5 pointers, the ones who struggle the most to find competitive sports to play, now struggle to compete at all.  Where do they go, what sport do they play?  This was a sport set up specifically for those who, through no fault of their own or lack of training, were unable to compete at basketball.  Where do these dedicated athletes go in terms of sport when they are getting pushed out the bottom end of the sport that was designed for them?  I wanted to highlight some of the issues I have noticed in classification as it has implications for Paralympic sport in general.  It’s not an obvious and rapid change and some may say that as disabled athletes train harder and techniques and equipment improve this movement of classification boundaries will naturally shift slightly.  However I disagree.  I think it is more than this and I do believe it is a cause, or perhaps a symptom, of a trend in disability sport moving in this direction.  In my mind the Paralympic movement was set up to give sport to those who could not play it with able bodied competitors. Those who had no chance to even play, yet alone compete with, able bodied athletes then had sports and organisations enabling them to do one of the major things they desired to do – compete, with others like them.


A shift in athlete recruitment.

I have noticed a shift recently towards sports finding people with minor impairments who are already playing alongside able bodied competitors and didn’t previously consider themselves « disabled » and recruiting them into para sport.  Much as I fully welcome inclusion it seems like much more of this has been happening recently and I don’t think it is the direction we should be going in.  Many sports seem more intent on finding people with very minor disabilities who are currently quite happy being involved in the sports they were already managing to take part in and making them great Paralympians. These people are already involved in sport and are active and healthy because of it. Whereas what I think should be happening is that the people who are currently struggling to take part in sport due to their disability are encouraged to participate and have opportunity to compete to a high level if they decide to and show the ability to do so.  Much as there is value in elevating those with minor impairment to compete with others in similar positions, it really only serves to win medals and therefore funding for national squads.  I don’t want to single out particular sports but as an example the recent British para rowing recruiting video did actually say words to the effect of “you may only have a slight impairment or not consider yourself disabled but you may still qualify for para rowing”.  I completely see why this needs to be said as GB rowing wants to win lots of medals, as do other sports.  However I am concerned as there are a limited number of sports and events at any Paralympic games.  There are some sports and events that are for athletes with very minimal disabilities or impairments that many would argue are taking away possible events for those with more severe disabilities who are just simply not able to compete at all if their events are not included.  Some impairments allow athletes to compete very easily with their able bodied counterparts and tough as the question may be, we need to ask if these sports should actually be included in a paralympic games?  I am not an expert, and I understand this directly affects some athletes currently competing, which sounds like I am being unfair to them.  However, in my mind if you have, for example, a minor upper limb amputation or your eye sight is affected but you can still see the lines on the track, you can still compete with able bodied runners (particularly over long distance), throw a javelin, or do the long jump.  These athletes who are much less affected by their disabilities do often produce events that can look visually more exciting.  The athletes look more like the stereotypical view of an able bodied Olympian.  They are often much easier to sell to the media.  Their bodies and the way they move are more similar to what an untrained able bodied viewer would be used to seeing in athletic competition.  But those with a greater degree of impairment train just as hard, struggle to overcome the odds just as much and deserve as much, if not more, opportunity to demonstrate to the world their physical prowess in competition as anyone else.  As new sports and new events fight their way into para sport and the Paralympic games, are we allowing too many sports and events for those with minor impairment?  At every games there are limits to the amount of medals on offer and when a sport or event is added it doesn’t mean there are more events, it just means that some others get pushed out.  Inclusion is great but when inclusion for those with minor impairment means fewer events for those with more significant impairment that actually becomes exclusion!  That exclusion is also at the expense of those who should benefit from inclusion the most.


There is an understandable temptation for national sporting bodies to pick less disabled medal hopes over equally likely medal hope but more disabled athletes.   It is unfortunate but true that it is easier and more cost effective to transport and accommodate the needs of someone with a minor disability than someone with a more severe disability.  I believe that there are times when the full support they need is not given to athletes with higher disabilities levels because of cost implications.  I believe this may be happening in developed countries national bodies when money is less of an issue, so is much more likely to be happening in places where finance for para sport is a larger issue. If you base funding on medals and you have limited resources to get those medals economics dictates you will spend those resources on the cheaper way to get medals. If there is equal opportunity for medals between 2 athletes, the « less disabled » athlete is the easier and cheaper one to select for the same medal opportunity.  This sadly can be a more tempting prospect for National selectors.  But when this happens it is at the expense of individual athletes with severe disabilities within all sports and also to the sports originally designed with them in mind.  I am concerned about the lack of possibility for selection for those who have had the classification boundaries moved above them to let more able athletes in and other sports where lack of disability is what coaches are looking for rather than talent, ability and determination.

Do we need a change in emphasis?

It all seems to point towards national bodies scouting for the least disabled in a classification (which will always happen) but also the least effort in converting someone already competing in a sport, not realising their minor disability allowed them to be eligible, over helping someone who has a more severe disability but could be a great athlete to learn a new sport from scratch.  It now often seems a bit like the “nearly able” are taking over Paralympic sport while the less able struggle to have events to compete in.  I don’t believe it is a deliberate change of direction by the Paralympics but more of a slow slide in that direction.  The Paralympics has been an awesome movement for positive change in the lives of disabled people, but I think we need to be aware of this slide and evaluate if it is helping to do what the Paralympics was initially set up to do.  Is it helping to motivate and inspire to get active, those it was set up to help?  If it is not being as effective at this as it should be, do we need to make some changes, as difficult as that may be, to readdress that balance?  The success of the Paralympic movement itself should not be underestimated but has this success ultimately distracted us from its original aims?


Rob Smith

Wheelchair racer and disability sport athlete,

Director of the Active Hands Company.

July 18th, 2017