’Oupa’ of golf: Christo de Jager, a veteran on the course, remains highly competitive in the annual SA Disabled Golf Open. Picture: www.sadga.co.za
’Oupa’ of golf: Christo de Jager, a veteran on the course, remains highly competitive in the annual SA Disabled Golf Open. Picture: www.sadga.co.za

Many able-bodied people find it hard enough to exercise the discipline needed to get fit and stay there. For those with any kind of disability — or who are "differently abled" as I saw on a sign at Absa Bank — physical activity is even more of a challenge.

The number of athletes SA sends to the Paralympics and the Commonwealth Games shows that it is possible to overcome the hurdles. Of course, it’s not possible for everyone with physical or mental disabilities to reach those stellar heights. But those who do are an inspiration to others.

The last South African census report (2011) claimed that 7.5% of the population (2,870,130 people) live with some form of disability. Disabled People SA (DPSA) immediately challenged the figure, saying that the real percentage is likely to be almost double, at about 14%.

An estimated 1-billion people are living with disabilities worldwide. And the reality, as experts have noted, is that they encounter a range of physical and social barriers that prevent them from accessing the same rights as nondisabled people. The right to as much health as possible in body and mind under the disabled circumstances is no exception.

Wheelchair sports have proliferated and include racing, tennis and basketball. Wheelchair Basketball SA calls the sport a "way of life".

There’s also boccia, a form of bowls that became a Paralympic sport in 1984. Boccia was originally designed to be played by people with cerebral palsy.

It now includes athletes with other severe disabilities that affect motor skills.

The DPSA website contains the compelling story of Khayelitsha resident and single mother Nomaindia Zenzile. Ten years ago, Zenzile was just 24 when she suddenly lost the use of both legs after doctors diagnosed a spinal cord tumour.

Although wheelchair-bound, Zenzile was determined, as she put it, not to let her disability define her. She has become active in wheelchair sports — racing, basketball and tennis. She is also a national wheelchair tennis player.

Zenzile participated in her first wheelchair race in Hermanus when she was having therapy at the Western Cape Rehabilitation Centre to cope with the consequences of the spinal tumour. She competed in a 5km race and won first place.

"It was very liberating," she is quoted as saying.

Zenzile continues to be physically active and is now DPSA finance administrator.

Another luminary is veteran golfer Christo de Jager, who the South African Disabled Golf Association calls the "oupa" of the sport in SA.

He competes in the division for players with a limb that does not function properly, along with golfers with cerebral palsy and hemiplegics.

De Jager returned to share the field with local and international players at the 2018 Canon SA Disabled Golf Open in May. In 2017, he finished fifth overall.

Globally, it’s true that many people with long-term limiting illness or physical disability don’t participate in regular exercise and sport. That’s despite growing opportunity in SA and many other countries.

Rolling Inspiration is a resource — a high-quality, thought leadership magazine that highlights quality of life for people with motility impairments. It includes tools, information and solutions for those wanting to be more active in all areas of life, including sport, recreation and travel.

London-based personal fitness trainer Sean Roberts makes a point of including people with disabilities as his clients.

He agrees that funding and resources are an issue.

More needs to be done to allow them to participate fully in sport and exercise routines and life in general.

One of his pet hates is fitness trainers who treat them as a homogeneous group: "You find someone with a physical disability doing the same training as someone with a mental disability. In the end, neither person benefits fully."

Training regimen

But perhaps the biggest challenge facing people with disability is that society – and physical trainers – underestimate them, he says.

"It drives me insane when a client tells me they can’t go further in a specific training regimen because they’ve been told that’s all they can do. As long as it’s medically safe, I always encourage them to do better and they respond."

In a 2013 study in Disability and Rehabilitation, US scientist Jeffrey Martin goes further. Physical activity is "arguably more important for people with disabilities relative to people without disabilities", says Martin, of Wayne State University in Detroit.

For starters, people with disabilities have higher rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes and all the associated health risks and complications. In the case of type 2 diabetes, that includes kidney disease, heart disease, blindness, limb amputation and cognitive decline.

Experts say the benefits of exercise and fitness for people with disabilities are legion — and too many to list here. Benefits include improved circulation, cardiovascular health, muscle strength and mood.

Roberts sees other benefits: improved self-esteem, overall quality of life, social interaction and acceptance.

And who better to look to for inspiration than the late Stephen Hawking, widely acknowledged as one of the greatest theoretical physicists since Albert Einstein. In 1963, aged 21, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a form of motor neurone disease. Doctors gave him two years to live.

He defied that prediction and went on to become a brilliant researcher and professor of applied mathematics and theoretical physics at Cambridge.

He also authored the seminal work A Brief History of Time.

He was wheelchair-bound and dependent on a computerised voice system for communication. Despite that, Hawking combined family life (two marriages, three children) with his research and an extensive travel and public lecture programme. He died in March, aged 76, from ALS complications.

When asked what his advice to other disabled people would be, Hawking said: "Concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you doing well and don’t regret the things it interferes with. Don’t be disabled in spirit as well as physically."

Sboros is founder, publisher and editor of Foodmed.net