Individuals with physical disabilities make up the largest minority group in the United States. Nearly 1 in 5 people have a disability in the United States, which equates to about 56.7 million people — 19 percent of our nation’s population. In the US, 25.6% of people with a disability are physically inactive during the week, compared to 12.8% of those without a disability.
Wheeling Forward has been a New York Cares community partner since 2015. Our volunteers support adults and seniors in wheelchairs as they attend fitness classes with specialized personal trainers and equipment adapted specifically to their needs. Wheeling Forward’s mission is “To help individuals with disabilities see beyond their limits, and reach for a quality of life that overcomes insurmountable odds.” The founders of Wheeling Forward both suffered spinal cord injuries and therefore understand firsthand the challenges of living with limited mobility. The Axis Project is a project that emerged from a collaboration between Wheeling Forward and Wheels of Progress, two NY-based nonprofits with deep roots in the disabled community.
Lawrence Harding, the Director of Fitness for the Axis Project, has been a licensed physical therapist for over 20 years and is a leading expert in the care of people with spinal cord injuries. He also serves as an Adjunct Professor of Physical Therapy at Long Island University, Columbia University, Touro College and Hunter College. Nick Mason, a former member of the Marketing and Communications team at New York Cares, recently interviewed Lawrence to hear his personal story and learn more about Wheeling Forward and Axis. Here are some highlights from the interview (excerpts have been lightly edited for length and clarity).
Nick: Could you talk to me about what the Axis program is, and what Wheeling Forward does, and what services you provide to your clients?
Lawrence: Wheeling Forward is a not-for-profit organization that was set up about five or six years ago by a couple of people with disabilities, and the purpose was to really help people improve their quality of life now. A lot of organizations and programs are very focused on the cure, but rather than looking for a cure, we wanted to focus on helping people improve their socialization, recreation, and, of course, the ability to do more with their bodies, hence their fitness. The point of Axis was to create a venue where those things could happen.
Members come in a couple of times a week and use the facilities where we provide fitness training and we do social activities. Let's do karaoke, let's go out to a movie, outings like that. We go watch a game, go out to the museum, or participate in new adaptive sports. We just had a big adaptive surfing event in the fall. We go sailing, we go waterskiing, we go skydiving.
And finally, Wheeling Forward does advocacy for people with disabilities because, you know, if you don't shout and scream sometimes nobody knows you’re there. So we’re helping people at the political level to really get the word out that the subway should be accessible, and the bus, and Uber, but it's not and that's causing confusion and consternation. So this advocacy is becoming really important.
Nick: How did you get involved with Wheeling Forward and Axis? Did you have a background in physical therapy?
Lawrence: Yes I am a physical therapist and I worked for many years at Mount Sinai Hospital and I started working with patients with spinal cord injuries because I felt I was good at it. And I liked it. That was when I met the founders of Wheeling Forward, I actually treated them. That was 15 years ago. And so they (the founders) started doing things with me because I started a few activities in the hospital. In the outpatient setting where I was working towards the end of my time, there were definitely adaptive activities. There was something called the Life Challenge program that used to take people to adaptive waterskiing and I said to myself, I'm not a water person, I love activity, but can we just go to a movie and dinner? So we started doing exactly that. Normal stuff. I came along with the two Wheeling Forward founders, Alex Elegudin, and Yannick Benjamin, when they started the Axis project and we based Axis on the idea of a community based post-rehabilitation center.
Nick: Post-rehabilitation center? What does that mean?
Lawrence: Let’s say you have a spinal cord injury or you're born with cerebral palsy, or you get multiple sclerosis, or you have an infection and come down with some infectious disease. Now what? Okay, you go to the hospital, you get stabilized medically, you go to rehabilitation, they teach you how not to die and some basic skills like how to get out of your seat, use the bathroom, eat, feed yourself. Then you go to outpatient care and maybe they'll teach you a few more things like how to control your wheelchair, how to get on the floor, how to get up after you fall because you will fall. At some point they say (claps hands) “Fine, you're well, go, you're done. Go home.” Go home to what? That person, are they good for life? No, they’re not done recovering yet. They’ve just started again in a different place.
Nick: Can you talk a little bit about the partnership with New York Cares?
Lawrence: New York Cares has been with us pretty much from the get-go. The volunteers are very good people, eager to help people, eager to learn, which is the big thing. I love New York Cares because our members really cherish the occasion to interact with people who are unaware or haven’t been exposed to people with disabilities. It's really wonderful for the members to have New York Cares volunteers come in because they [the members] can show and tell rather than the other way around where people tend to look at them as passive receivers of activities and information.
Nick: Can you tell me about some of the other things you do outside of Axis?
Lawrence: I'm also currently an adjunct professor of physical therapy at Columbia and NYU. I teach classes periodically. I'm also in a dance company, so I keep myself active. Being in a post-modern dance company, that really gave me a good insight into the joy of movement and that's partly my goal here for the members. Not only with the fitness, but with their whole lives. I want them to find joy in movement. You may not be able to move like normal, or move as much as other people do, but you can still find fun using this instrument of your body and that's something that's very easily lost after experiencing a disability. Because people are very much prone to say “Your legs are not working anymore … ignore it. Or you have tremors and you can't do fine motor actions.” I’ve seen people who have the worst tremors do some beautiful movement, with a challenge. Movement is movement, beauty comes from enjoying it and also showing what a person’s movement can look like in its own way. It doesn't need to be the same kind of movement as everybody else's, as long as it's yours and it's genuine. I find that being involved in dance in an artistic way helps me to bring it into my work.
Like many of the nonprofits and schools we work with, Wheeling Forward provides a vital service based on their unique expertise and knowledge of their communities. Wheeling Forward started as the dream of a small group of people and has become much more than that, proving that making a difference is possible by starting with the personal and expanding outward. We hope our volunteers and wider community consider volunteering for or leading projects with Wheeling Forward to continue the exchange of knowledge and inspiration!