The classes were listed as Physical Education -- Rehabilitation Fitness.
I was invited to attend these classes at College of Marin two years ago, but was reluctant to go. The same fear that keeps me from joining support groups, where illness is emphasized over wellness, returned to haunt me. My philosophy is that I am a well person with a disability, not a disabled person with an illness.
My friend continued the invitation, seconded by others in the program, so I reluctantly decided to go. The cost is modest, the classes are unregimented, participation in the program is voluntary, and the amount of the program utilized is strictly up to the participant.
The first hour is spent in general conditioning exercises, with an attempt to get all the body parts and joints moving. The instructor leads the exercises seated on a chair in the front of the gym, while those of us in the class try to mimic his or her motions. When the muscles are not cooperating, there are assistants hovering nearby to assist in accomplishing the particular movement.
The class consists, on any given day (Monday through Thursday), of about 40 people, all with physical disabilities of one sort of another. The majority are stroke victims, plus a sizable minority (such as myself) with multiple sclerosis, and a scattering of congenital and traumatic conditions.
The second hour is spent in a fully mechanized room, with every sort of machine for body toning available. There are five different types of exercise bicycles (some motorized), rowing machines, parallel bars, and various pneumatic resistive weight lifting machines.
Simultaneously, the staff works one-on-one doing stretching, massage and other body work. In the afternoon, there is yoga, then aquatic exercise in the swimming pool.
The program is designed to make the best of what is left, not what has been lost. Health and wellness are emphasized. The disability is taken for granted. Concentration is on the glass half full, not the glass half empty.
My reluctance to join the group was based on past experiences with a so-called "support group," where the emphasis was on what had been lost instead of on what remained. Many of the sessions ended up as "pity parties," with the discussions dwelling on how bad things are, instead of emphasizing the positive. There were always the conversations about that pie in the sky, or some new (unproven) miracle cure that had just appeared on the Internet.
My attitude of emphasizing the positive is not new thinking; it has been with us for ages. Almost 2000 years ago, when the man at the Sheep Gate by the pool of Bethesda complained that he could not get down to the pool when the angel troubled the waters, Jesus did not offer some exotic cure. He simply said, "Rise, take up your pallet and walk" (John 5:8). Make use of what you have, instead of dwelling on what you have lost.
This was well demonstrated in our class one morning when the instructor had not yet arrived, and the staff seemed anxious to get started. They turned on the sound system and put on an old Elvis tune with a strong beat (this is good music for exercise, as it provides a rhythm for the motion).
One of the assistants, who happens to have Down Syndrome, started doing a hilarious Elvis impersonation. He went all out, over-emphasizing every beat with uncontrolled shouts of joy. Soon the rest of the staff were dancing, and the students began to join in.
An elderly man, obviously a stroke victim, rose stiffly from his chair and began to sway with the music. I could tell this man knew rhythm, and music was embedded in his bones. In spite of his disability, he just had to get up and move with the music.
There was laughter and merriment as the young man with Down Syndrome, who is also a world champion weight lifter, continued his dance -- but we were laughing with him, not at him. He was one of us, showing what talents he had, instead of his deficiencies.
As with the gentleman struggling to his feet to dance, we all came from a myriad of backgrounds, each intent on preserving what we have left rather than dwelling on what we have lost.
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