Tom Clement goes to the gym twice a week for an hour each time. He works primarily on upper body strength, emerging from the gym stronger with every session.
But Clement is not your average gym goer. To begin with, he’s well into his sixties; he’s also been in a wheelchair for most of his life since falling off a roof and severing his spinal cord. For the past 15 years, Clement has been a regular at Ned Norton’s Warriors on Wheels gym, a training facility catered to the most marginalized of communities in the world of fitness: people living with disabilities.
Named one of the CNN Top Heroes in 2014, Norton, 58, has been running non-profit organization Warriors on Wheels for over 20 years. Formerly a competitive power lifter, a three-time finisher of the NYC Marathon and a fitness trainer with 35 years of professional experience, Norton has found passion in bringing what he loves most – fitness – to the lives of those who otherwise never get to experience beating a personal best.
“I never worry about what they can’t do,” said Norton. “I worry about what they can do, and make them as independent and capable as possible.”
It all started when Norton was managing a gym and training athletes back in 1988. A football player he was training expressed concern for a friend who had been left paraplegic after an accident. He asked Norton if he could train him at the gym and help him recover not just physically, but also psychologically. Tailoring a program for his friend with the help of his doctor, Norton began training him and saw rapid progress in him within six months.
Now, Norton trains more than 120 people every week. His clients are affected by a wide range of disabilities, including autism, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and vision impairment. The gym is located in Albany, New York, on the fourth floor of a public housing project high rise. The Albany Housing Authority donates the space to him so he doesn’t pay rent, and Norton’s side jobs, support from private donors as well as regularly held fundraising events help keep the project going. Some of the money goes towards the state’s transport authority, which provides STAR, or Special Transportation at Request, to arrange buses that bring people with disabilities to and from the Warriors on Wheels gym.
Norton charges a rate of $10 for 10 visits, but many of his clients subsist on welfare and disability payments, making the fee difficult to afford. In fact, just over 30 percent are able to pay. But Norton is happy to waive this fee, believing that everyone should have access to his training regardless of financial ability.
“If they can pay, fine, but I don’t really keep track of those who don’t,” Norton said. “Most of the people I work with are on very limited incomes.”
Clients at Warriors on Wheels use adaptive equipment that has been specially designed by Norton and his team to facilitate improvements in strength and conditioning. Traditional machines like the shoulder press and bench press have been modified, and the seats are cut off from multi-stations, which includes a pec deck, lat pull down cable and preacher curl, so that those in wheelchairs can use them too.
Jamal Burgess is autistic and has been coming to the Warriors on Wheels gym for over 15 years.
“The repetitive motion is good for him,” Norton said of his swift punches as his laced up boxing gloves hit the heavy bag.
“I love it here. I like to work out with Ned,” said Burgess.
Working out at Warriors on Wheels have led clients to see more than just an improvement in their physical health. Norton says many have gone on to find employment, drive again and pursue their interests without allowing their disabilities to get in the way.
Clement thanks Norton for helping him live a full life and increasing his ability to maintain the stamina of everyday work.
"The physical benefits are obvious. People have an easier time getting in and out of wheelchairs or opening heavy doors,” said Norton. “The psychological benefits are even more significant. There's a feeling of accomplishment, of self-confidence. The program makes people more independent."