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Ability Bow: the only accessible gym of its kind in London

Occupying the top two floors of St Paul’s Church Old Ford, Ability Bow is an accessible gym that caters for people with disabilities and is the only one of its kind in London. However, recent funding cuts are threatening the services that are offered in this remarkable gym.

What Ability Bow does

Ability Bow is an inclusive community gym that specifically caters for the needs of people with a range of disabilities or long term health conditions. The specialist equipment and team of trainers provide support for people who feel they cannot use other gyms, either due to a life-transforming accident or a range of conditions such as spina bifida.

All the trainers at Ability Bow have an enhanced fitness qualification, and are trained further to work with disabilities once they are employed at the gym. ‘I don’t mind if someone doesn’t have full disability exercise-awareness training when they join us. As long as they have the right attitude, we can develop our instructors’ skills so they can enhance the fitness support offered to our members’ explains Victoria Kent, founder of the gym.

Every member that starts at Ability Bow undergoes a 12-week training programme which gives individuals a huge amount of support from start to finish. The aim of this is to have members training individually or in small groups by the end of the 12 weeks.

Anyone is allowed to become a member, but their primary focus is on those who cannot or do not want to use other gyms.

The inspiring vision behind its creation

The gym was set up by Victoria Kent in 2006. Kent has always worked in the health and fitness industry, and although she used to be a regular personal trainer, her interest always lay in helping those with specific difficulties.

‘I’ve always just wanted to help people’ she says. ‘Before setting up Ability Bow, I worked in a regular gym as a personal trainer and while that was fulfilling, I knew that I specifically wanted to help those that couldn’t use ordinary gyms.’

When the gym that was based in St Paul’s before Ability Bow left, and abandoned their gym equipment, it was the catalyst Kent needed to set up the gym.

‘It was an amazing chance for me to set up my own business in a place that already had all the facilities I needed’ she explains.

The heart-warming results of their work

Graham Naylor has used Ability Bow since 2014 when he was buried in snow during an avalanche and was in a coma for 10 days. Naylor explains, ‘I’ve been really lucky and owe so much to the gym since the accident. It has provided support every day to aid my recovery after my accident.’

Graham Naylor at Ability Bow
Graham Naylor using the gym

Gym members like Naylor benefit from the gym on a daily basis and now, Naylor wants to give something back with his fundraising campaign.

57-year-old Jeffrey Mcneshie, a gym user at Ability Bow says ‘There’s no other place like it. The gym has such an important place in my life.’

Mcneshie has travelled from Stratford to Bow once a week for the past three years since an accident left him in a wheelchair five years ago. Alongside physiotherapy, the exercise he undertakes at Ability Bow has helped him to dramatically increase his mobility. ‘I’m starting to be able to walk a little bit with the help of a frame’ he says.

Tower Hamlets is one of the most deprived boroughs in the country, and the disabled population is growing. As well as catering for the needs of local people, Ability Bow must also cater for the needs of disabled people from all parts of London, as there are really no other facilities of the same inclusivity and expertise in the rest of the city. In fact, the nearest equivalent facility is in Birmingham.

More and more GPs are referring their patients who are at the end of physiotherapy courses or who could just benefit from specific forms of exercise, and Ability Bow are constantly gaining new members.

‘We’re popular because we provide people with actual, measurable results that you can see, even if it’s just being able to move more independently or not be as stiff in the mornings’ Kent explains. ‘I think we have about 250 members now.’

Funding problems and struggles

Despite this demand, Ability Bow is struggling to survive.

Funding for Ability Bow comes from a variety of different places including Tower Hamlets Council, Hackney NHS and fundraising efforts by members, volunteers and the local community. As with many small charities however, money is tight and there is an ever-growing demand for their resources.
At the end of 2016, decisions had to be made to ensure that Ability Bow could continue doing its job, and a downsize was required. Throughout 2017, Kent and her team had to come to terms with the fact that colleagues had been made redundant and that they could no longer cater for people with more complex disabilities.

By the end of 2017, after a tough year, it seemed that Ability Bow had overcome the worst of it. Although they were left smaller than they would like, Kent is determined to rebuild both their team and their capacity to work with people with more complex disabilities.

Although Ability Bow has some full time employees, volunteering is needed now more than ever. Many of the administrative roles are done on a voluntary basis, and events throughout the year are supported by volunteers. ‘We constantly need new volunteers, and even the little things help’ explains Kent.

What you can do to help this local charity

To get involved with volunteering either swing by the gym, or head to the Volunteer section of their website.

As well as volunteers, Ability Bow is always looking for new fundraising opportunities, and have a Virgin money giving page constantly live.

On top of this, throughout the year, members and trainers at Ability Bow take part in charity events such as Ride London which takes place on 28th July, to raise money for the gym.

Find them at 3rd Floor, St. Paul’s Church, St. Stephen’s Road, Bow, London E3 5JL
Opening hours are Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday: 9.30am to 5pm. Tuesday 9.30am to 6pm

If you like this, you might like our other good cause stories including Toynbee Hall and Oxford House.

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