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Taking the dis- out of disability through extreme sports

David Heard, the founder of Sportability, spoke to UCan2 editor Victoria Galligan about why he decided to set up a charity which helps people with paralysis to take part in extreme sports, and the range of activities now available…

Paralsis needn’t stop a person from living life to the full. But back in the late 80’s when David Heard’s friend Richard, a ski instructor, was injured in a motoring accident, there weren’t a lot of options available in sport for people with disabilities.

David says: “To help Richard literally get back on his feet we tried going skiing. But that didn’t work. Sadly, it made him feel ‘disabled’ and highlighted how things were different before the accident. But when we tried scuba- diving, which he had never done before, it was a huge success.”

David and Richard had a revelation: by organising sporting events for people with paralysis they could get them to not only experience again the adrenaline rush, have some fun and boost their mood; but also restore their self-belief, rebuild their confidence and help make the future look brighter. In 1989 they formed the charity, Sportability.

Sportability a muddy quadbike rider and wheelchair, extreme sports

Sportability’s first event was sailing on the Norfolk Broads. Then they set up a centre in Gloucestershire, which offered activities on-site and in the surrounding area. But receiving calls from all over the country – and even overseas – made the Sportability team realise one location wasn’t enough. The charity relies on fundraising, and David took to cycling up the spine of Vietnam, from Saigon to Hanoi to raise seed-corn funding for some regional development. So, their second regional programme was launched in the East Midlands. 

From those humble beginnings the charity has developed a year-round programme of events almost nation-wide. These include quad-biking, falconry, sailing, gliding, microlight flying, shooting, canoeing, wheelchair tennis, 4×4 off-road driving, powered flying, BloKart sailing, indoor skydiving and more. Sportability is now in 14 regions of the UK with over 800 free places a year available for people who have some form of paralysis – typically spinal cord injury, stroke and MS.

And the impact which the Sportability days out have is huge. David explains: “We work with a lot of spinal injury units and they encourage people to see life beyond the hospital.

“They realise that it is not enough to tell someone they can carry on living after paralysis. They need to know how.” He gives the example of a middle-aged man, who had come to a Sportability event straight from the spinal injury unit, where he was being treated since his accident. “He came to one of our quad-biking events and was understandably as nervous as hell to begin with. We are asking people to go well outside of their comfort zone.

“But the four-wheel motorbikes are stable and operate with a thumb throttle and hand-only controls. We start on a simple circuit at a walking pace. The professional instructors then take the riders
out in groups with the more confident riders in one, and those who are maybe a bit slower and need more support in another.

“Our new recruit was one of the more confident. As soon as he began riding his body language changed and after five minutes he started to relax. By the end, he was tackling the big stuff, the rugged terrain and he came back punching the air with delight! He’d spent the last six months in hospital and had gone from there to quad-biking.

“Two weeks later he joined us on a gliding event. He was in tears that day and said to me, ’You’ve got no idea what this means. Now I’ve got hope. Now I’m looking forward to my discharge.’ That is the power of sport.”

A call for volunteers

Local Area Organisers – volunteers who help to organise the sporting events – work alongside the established professional sport and activity providers. They ensure that a wide variety of events can take place in their areas.

But David says: “We want to take it to the nation. Ideally, we’d like to get within an hour’s drive for most of the population.”

His aim is to make Sportability events even more accessible. So the charity is now looking for people in the South Wales and Tyneside areas to step up as volunteer area organisers and help develop programmes there.

Such is the appeal that Sportability has inspired some people to travel the country and take part in even more activities, and for one member, David even arranged quad-biking in Florida, USA. That man told David that he had done more things in his life since having MS, than before. He says: “With MS there are two ways you can go. Either switch off and wait for a cure. Or you can find a different way of living your life. Like a river finding a new course.”

And this is the ethos at the heart of Sportability, as David says: “After paralysis a person’s life as they knew it is, in most cases, no longer available. Things have inexorably changed.

“But Sportability is about taking the ‘dis’ out of disability and focussing on ability. Their life may be different, but there are still thrilling and exciting opportunities out there. And if we can leave people with the belief and the thought: If I can do this what else can I do? Then we have done our job.”

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