Joel Cooper

What Fitness Taught Me About Reaching Goals With a Disability

When I was a newborn, my parents were told I would never live the life of a “normal” human being, nor make it past the age of 1 and amount to anything if I did make it. From that point on, it only got worse as I grew up; doctors wanted surgery after surgery, still behind the pessimistic attitude that I would not be able to walk, talk normally, function normally, or live a “normal” life because of my physical disability.

I grew up living a semi-usual life like my peers. I played Legos and G.I. Joe like the other boys my age; I went to birthday parties. I knew I was different physically because I saw the three smaller fingers on my left hand and the leg braces I wore to school every day. I ended up going to all public schools, but was never picked to play in sports, P.E., and often had to sit out at recess because I either lacked the confidence to go out and climb and try new things, or nobody wanted to include me in their games because of my differences. I was treated differently from everyone else because I was one of the few children with a disability in my school.

Halfway through my life, I realized all of this was not because of the boundaries I was setting for myself, but ones that doctors were setting for me — the same doctors who had no hope for my life. One day at the age of 15, I decided to join a weight lifting class my high school offered, knowing I had spina bifida and knowing I would never be able to keep up with the athletes and football players in my class if I joined. Since the first day of that class, I have never looked back on the life I was once used to, of being told I could not do this or do that because of my physical disability.

I worked out every day in the class and at home; after school and in school, so I could keep up with my peers. Failed workout after failed workout because of my lack of strength both physically and mentally at the time, turned to successful workout after successful workout as time went on. Now 20 years later, I am opening my own gym designed to help people with disabilities in Virginia, running a personal training business designed to help people with disabilities, and living past any limit any doctor told me I would. And with that, I always spread the message to never allow any boundary, lack of confidence, or setback push you out of any goal you want to achieve or way of life you want to live as somebody with a disability.

Living with disabilities,