Aspire’s InstructAbility report on disabled people working in leisure.


Paying It Forward

How can you repay someone for their help, when they are no longer around? You pay it forward.

This is what Jude Caunter does every time she goes to work at the John Pounds Centre in Portsmouth. She uses the support and encouragement she received from Tracy Griffiths, who died last year, to provide other people with opportunities to live healthy, active lifestyles.

Jude first encountered Tracy in 2010, when she went to the John Pounds Centre as part of her rehabilitation. Jude was recovering from surgery to remove a cavernoma in her spinal cord. A cavernoma is a cluster of abnormal blood vessels, and can cause a number of symptoms including paralysis.

‘My GP sent me to a Health Trainer and that is when I met Tracy. She made the gym a fun and welcoming place. I’d tried other gyms before, prior to my operation, to help with my weight issues and I didn’t feel safe or that I fitted in, but this was different. I completed the 10 week exercise course but couldn’t continue due to transport difficulties. Unfortunately after several months it became apparent that the surgery had not helped, and in fact had reduced my mobility even further.’

At this point Jude was already a long way down the line into dealing with her health condition. Jude first experienced temporary paralysis from the waist down back in 1987, caused by blood leaking from the carvenoma (that nobody knew she had). She recovered gradually and was able to lead a relatively normal life albeit with a number of walking aids. It took another twenty years before an MRI scan revealed the problem, but not before Jude had experienced many years of decreasing mobility and increasing weight gain. She went on to lose 6 stone through diet and exercise in preparation for surgery.

‘After the operation and the realisation that my mobility wasn’t going to get any better I started to use a wheelchair. I found myself at age 49, disabled, in a wheelchair and redundant from a clerical job that I had been doing for 23 years.’

So what does one do when faced with such disheartening circumstances? Take up athletics of course!

Jude started going to a local seated athletics club, for something to do, and it appears serendipity stepped in to guide her to her future career. Firstly, in the guise of her athletics coach who told her about the opportunity for disabled people to become gym instructors through Aspire’s InstructAbility programme. Secondly, around the same time, she started bumping into Tracy again who lived in the neighbourhood that Jude had recently moved to.

Jude recalls the conversations,

‘I asked her what she thought of the whole wheelchair user being a gym instructor thing and she thought it was an “awesome” idea and that she would be happy to have me do my 3 month placement at John Pounds Centre where she was running a funded Exercise Referral Scheme.

‘And a few months later there I was – a qualified Fitness Instructor at John Pounds Centre. Shortly after my volunteer period ended, I was offered a part time position at the centre, and that was just the start.

‘With tremendous support from Tracy and all the centre staff I established a disability and exercise programme which runs in tandem with the Exercise Referral scheme. I act as a gym buddy for disabled clients, so I can help guide them through how to best use the equipment and write a gym programme for them.

‘Since gaining my initial qualification with InstructAbility in 2014, I have progressed through the levels gaining: Level 3 certificate in Personal Training, Level 3 Exercise Referral and Level 4 Cardiac Rehab Exercise Instructor. ’

Fuelled with enthusiasm to improve accessibility for everyone, the John Pounds Centre secured a grant in 2016 to upgrade the gym equipment and introduce inclusive fitness kit such as an Octane 6000 XR, a SciFit Pro 2 hand bike, a Cardio wall and two Precor FTS Glides.

Jude now runs the Phase IV cardiac rehab classes at the centre, liaising with the Phase III team from the Queen Alexandra Portsmouth Hospital and continues to support disabled people with one to one sessions, those on GP referral and many other clients that come into the gym.

One of her rehab clients says,

‘The success of the programme was partly down to the thorough and personalised pre-session interview with Jude. Her approach was clear, informative and very person centred.’

Another client demonstrates how Jude’s work is helping people to live the active lives they want,

‘Since the consultant gave me the go ahead to exercise again I've been coming to Jude’s classes which had led me to be able to get back to my favourite hobby -rock and roll dancing.’

Jude says,

‘InstructAbility gave me the opportunity to explore a career path that I never thought possible as a wheelchair user. I rarely get a negative reaction from clients. I might get an odd look but once people realise I know my stuff they are accepting of me, and in fact most people are encouraged to find someone like me there, putting them at their ease and letting them know that exercise is achievable for everybody.

‘My placement at the John Pounds Centre enabled me to develop my skills. Tracy supported me and championed my career development. She was full of joy and energy and a Zumba Instructor supreme! Tracy was diagnosed with stage 4 bowel cancer shortly after I joined and after 3 years of strength and bravery the treatment was no longer effective and she passed away in April 2018. She is greatly missed, but those of us whose lives she touched will endeavour to keep her bright light shining in continuing our efforts in the Fitness Industry.

Jude shone that light at Elevate, the UK’s largest physical activity trade event when she joined the InstructAbility team in London to talk about and demonstrate inclusive group exercise.  Her continued efforts saw her recently become a qualified Seated SOSA dance instructor set to deliver classes in January.

No doubt there is due to be many more people who will benefit from Jude’s expertise and enthusiasm as she pays forward all the support she received from Tracy, that helped her to become the Seated SOSA instructor supreme!

Let us all embrace the ‘Pay It Forward’ ethos. Help someone in some way and keep the cycle going and the bright light shining.