“If I don’t like the way gyms are, I will create one myself!”

Stephen Birkby doesn’t mince his words when he reflects on the shortcomings of how the fitness industry caters for disabled people. As someone who has always known what he wanted, training as an Instructor on Aspire’s InstructAbility programme, gave him the tools and impetus to create an inclusive fitness environment for disabled people.

Stephen explains,

“The InstructAbility programme was a catalyst for me to set up my own enterprise to create better inclusive opportunities for disabled people to exercise. InstructAbility not only enabled me to become a qualified fitness instructor, it also made me realise that disabled people could play a role in changing the industry.

“I remember my experience of going to the gym as a wheelchair user and it was horrendous. I plucked up the courage to go to a local authority gym but I hated it. People stared at me, I didn’t fit in, I felt like an outcast! I was told that there was nobody suitably qualified to help me. I tried private gyms and I had the same negative experience, I just felt people didn’t want to know.

“My hospital physiotherapy sessions had come to an end and I really needed support to be physically active but there didn’t seem to be any help, it left me feeling very depressed, and at times suicidal.”

Today, as Stephen talks about DAWS, (Disability Awareness with Sport) based in Sheffield, which he founded in 2014, his demeanour could not be more different. He is a man filled with enthusiasm, pride and a positive outlook on life. He is also surrounded by family, friends and an ever growing community of people that he has helped to bring together.

The path has not been a smooth one for Stephen, but maybe that is where he gets his unwavering determination and his vision and enthusiasm seems to infect people along the way. Initially after recovering from a life changing injury, he considered a desk based career, ‘suited to a wheelchair user’, and went to Sheffield Hallam University to study computing. At this time he was also introduced to wheelchair basketball during rehabilitation sessions at the spinal injury unit. 

He reflects,

“I was encouraged to try a range of sports, I tried archery but it didn’t really appeal and wheelchair rugby scared the hell out of me, but I found I really enjoyed wheelchair basketball.”

Stephen went on to play for ‘The Sheffield Steelers’ and in the process of getting into disability sport, he challenged the university to create more opportunities for disabled students. He succeeded in leading a wheelchair basketball team to bronze medal success in 2014 at the inaugural British Wheelchair Basketball’s University Championships.

Shortly after graduating, Stephen completed the InstructAbility programme, which was to change the course of his and others’ future. He set up inclusive fitness sessions at a local authority gym based at Westfield School. An initial twelve week project was extended for a further three months due to its success. When Stephen saw his approach was working, he founded DAWS and with the support of the centre manager he gained further qualifications in Personal Training and GP referral.



A grant was awarded to develop the centre but the new contractors did not have the same vision and Stephen was left seeking a new home for DAWS. The quality of service and demand from the local community for inclusive fitness had not gone unnoticed. In 2017 local councillors saw an opportunity to relocate DAWS to a permanent home within the new state-of-the-art gym and soccer hub, St. George’s Park Westfield.

DAWS gained charity status in October 2017 and is a thriving community setting where people come together to exercise and socialise. In addition to sessions at the gym, DAWS also delivers inclusive exercise for people at Hackenthorpe Community Centre, to cater for people who are unable to get to the gym or find the environment too intimidating.  Typical activities include mobility and stretching exercises and chair based aerobics. The sessions have not only proved popular but have also provided a stepping stone for the ‘gym phobic’ to build confidence, with many transitioning to sessions at the Westfield gym.

A sense of community is at the heart of the DAWS mission, with regular social outings that bring together participants from the gym and community centre as well as their friends and partners. Activities and equipment are designed to promote inclusion such as the wheelchair trainer that enables wheelchair users to join in spin classes.

DAWS has benefitted from home grown support, with Stephen’s wife, Tracey, volunteering as Safeguarding Officer  and daughter, Shelby, training as a fitness instructor to work at DAWS. The experience shaped Shelby’s career ambition which led her to take up a post leading sport for young people in special school settings. Many in the local community are willing to give back to the organisation that they or their loved ones have benefited from. A case in point is that of Mrs. Morris, who now volunteers as a DAWS charity trustee after seeing the impact the sessions had on her husband.

She says,

“Stephen is able to inspire the uninspired! My husband, who was diagnosed with high blood pressure, became depressed and withdrawn. I took him to see Stephen and ten months later he is both physically fitter but more importantly mentally fitter too. I now deal with the charity’s administration and am also due to train as a coach to help deliver inclusive sport sessions.”

The positive health impact of attending the sessions are starting to be seen with other clients, Stephen expressed his surprise and delight,

“Recently we have had four people tell us about coming of medication for Type 2 Diabetes. It is amazing that such a dramatic change can occur with a bit of exercise and guidance on lifestyle and eating habits.”

DAWS and the local disability football initiative at the St George’s Park centre are also working in partnership, signposting disabled people to take up football or get fit for football in the gym. DAWS looks set to expand its services with a recently awarded Sport England grant that will enable Stephen and his team to deliver inclusive activities such as Boccia and New Age Curling to pupils in local primary and secondary schools.

Sport England’s Head of Disability, Lindsay Games, said:

 “We were delighted to be able to support Stephen, initially though the InstructAbility programme and more recently with a Lottery grant to develop DAWS. Research has shown that disabled people are twice as likely to be inactive as non-disabled people, but also that 70 per cent of disabled people want to be more active. Stephen’s work is making the fitness industry more inclusive and accessible for everyone, and it is a pleasure to be able to help Stephen to achieve his ambition, and support other disabled people to enjoy the benefits of physical activity. We wish Stephen and his clients every success.”

Stephen is not someone who spends time looking backwards and has a clear focus on the future. However, his backstory is an important one to share as it helps to explain why people with such experiences, are so well equipped and driven to support others.  This is how he sums it up…

“In 2003 I sustained a spinal injury due to an accident at work. I was told by the medical team that I would spend the rest of my days in a wheelchair. Coping with the injury and the loss of my job sent me into a downward spiral of depression. But when my six year old daughter said that there are other people worse off than us, it gave me a major kick up the backside! But as I was starting to come to terms with my situation my left foot became infected, leading to three bouts of MRSA and Septicaemia. I fought infections for three years until a deep bone biopsy revealed cancer in the bottom half of my left leg.

The idea of dealing with cancer scared the living ‘crap out of us’ and so after some careful consideration I elected for the option to have an above knee amputation. Following surgery and recovery I had a false limb constructed a as vanity option to make me feel better while in a wheelchair. ‘Vanity’ – yes men have it too!

A little while later I had a very serious fall in my wheelchair, injuring my spine further. At this point I was faced with the option of more surgery but there was a chance of it causing further pain and loss of mobility. I concluded that at present surgery was not an option for me, but a change in lifestyle could help me improve my quality of life. Out of depression and on to a new start in life, I decided to go back to college and brush up on numeracy and literature. Another bad fall led me back to hospital and back to intensive physio. I experienced severe pain with phantom limb syndrome and other weird pain I could not describe. Judy, my Physiotherapist, noticed that my residual limb was twitching and it was discovered that the pain was due to nerve impulses in the residual limb.

Under the physio regime, I worked to improve the strength in my back muscles which led to a development in the muscle of the residual limb. A further challenge was set to strengthen the residual limb to a level where I could use a prosthetic to enable me to walk.  Eighteen months later I was walking. Even though I still have bad days with pain and the need to use a wheelchair, the experience has left me with a determination to succeed in everything I do. I understand that recovery and fitness go together and I hope I make a real difference in the way disabled people cope with impairment and become more active in their daily lives.