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I Tried Zumba in a Wheelchair

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Exercise is good for you; I don’t think anyone is going to fight me on that.

I mean…who doesn’t remember this infamous Elle Woods quote?

I’ve been exercising since I was young, first with pediatric PT at Easter Seals DFVR, then at the adaptive “DRES” gym in college, and now with personal training at Right Fit. But all these places have something in common. They all have experience working with disabilities, and in my case always provided one-on-one sessions with a trainer or therapist.

I always envied my able-bodied friends’ abilities to go to a mainstream gym without getting stared at, to use all of the machines and join the large selection of fitness classes. One class in particular I’ve always longed to try is Zumba. I’ve seen people taking this class before, and was drawn to the high energy and the smiles on everyone’s faces as they moved along to the upbeat music.

The more I thought about it, the more I wanted in. Just because a class hasn’t had a participant in a wheelchair before doesn’t mean it’d be impossible for me to join. It’s time for the fitness world to be more inclusive of people with all abilities. Besides, anyone who has been out with me in Wrigleyville before knows I got moves.

I felt empowered. I was determined to push society’s boundaries and try out a Zumba class in a wheelchair. But I wasn’t ready to tackle this venture alone, and luckily I didn’t have to. I went to visit my friend Deb (who is also in a chair) in Fort Lauderdale and told her about my idea.

“We should take a Zumba class together,” I said nonchalantly.

“Yes!” Deb replied, “I was just thinking I wanted to get fit, but I didn’t want to go alone.”

Our plan was in motion. There’s was no turning back now. We found a class at a local LA Fitness for later that week and decided to call them to give them a heads up that two chicks in chairs were going to roll in.

I made Deb call because as a typical millennial, I have a fear of talking on the phone.

“Hi, I was just calling about the Zumba class on Thursday night,” Deb said. “My friend and I are in wheelchairs and we wanted to come try it out.”

“Um… sorry, can you repeat that?” the man said nervously. He sounded as though he thought we were pranking him.

Deb laughed and tried again, “My friend and I are in wheelchairs and we want to come do Zumba! We just wanted to call to let you know and make sure we’ll be able to participate.”

“Well, we have an elevator to get up to the studios and it is all flat once you get up there,” he responded.

Not exactly the response we were looking for, but we thanked him and told him we would see him Thursday.

When Thursday night rolled around, I had a moment of panic. What did I get myself into? I tried to convince Deb that we should go a different day, but she wasn’t having it. We made our way inside and up to the studio where a room full of people were already warming up to “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”. We got a few stares as we rolled in and stayed toward the back to draw less attention to ourselves.

We began to move to the music and followed the instructor’s movements with our arms. It was all going pretty well until people began to move up/down and side to side on the floor, and when they did 360 degree turns. It was difficult for us to do the dance moves while also moving our chairs, so for the most part we stayed in one place when this happened. There were also times when a lot of the moves were solely leg movements. This was a bit uncomfortable, but we tried our best to adapt the movements to what we could do with our arms and just had fun with it.

About halfway through the class, we were summoned to the front of the studio. This made me feel even more vulnerable, especially when Deb left the class for 10 minutes to go to the bathroom and get water. But I persevered nonetheless and kept moving until the end.

After the class we got a lot of high fives and talked to a few of the other attendees. They were curious about our stories and what made us decide to come, and said we did a good job for our first time.
Zumba in a wheelchair.

This is the reason why I put myself in uncomfortable and sometimes scary situations. It is important for people to see disabled people in society doing everyday things and living fulfilling lives. Society isn’t fully accessible or accepting towards disabled people yet, and the only thing that will change that is exposure. We need to be present in the workforce, on public transportation and heck, in Zumba classes to let the world know we are worthy of equal opportunities. Hopefully us being in that class will have an impact on how the attendees view and treat disabled people in the future.

We left the class on a high. Deb was so motivated that she joined the gym and signed up for a personal training session for the next day.

The experience overall was very motivating. It not only gave us more confidence in our abilities, but it also (hopefully) changed the class’ mindset on disability. Did we change the world? No. But did we make an impact on disability inclusion in fitness? Yes. Baby steps, folks.

This story originally appeared on Write With Shan.

Originally published: November 1, 2018
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