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Wheels Up

Through his organization Disabled But Not Really, Wesley Hamilton is on a mission to inspire

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At just 24 years old, Wesley Hamilton found an untapped strength in his family and himself when he was suddenly disabled. Now, through his nonprofit, Disabled But Not Really, he’s showing the disabled community that through fitness, nutrition, and wellness, those with limitations can thrive, not just survive.

Growing up, Wesley Hamilton didn’t let himself think much about the future. As a child in Kansas City, he knew the path ahead for many African American men like himself could be a rocky one, fraught with challenges.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before a new reality set in. Shortly after receiving full custody of his young daughter and celebrating his 24th birthday, Hamilton got into a verbal confrontation while walking to his car. He suffered multiple gunshot wounds that left him with a severed spine, paralyzing him from the waist down.

Surprisingly, it was in the hospital that Hamilton discovered a newfound strength he had never been able to tap into before. “I'm grateful that I had my daughter to fuel me,” he recalls. “I just wanted to be active for my child. It wasn't that I wanted to change the world, or even impact other people's lives. That came later.”

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Time for a change

Despite being on bed rest for 21 hours a day, Hamilton’s doctors advised him that, because he was overweight for his frame when he was injured, his weight was holding him back from proper healing. His new normal of being seated in a wheelchair was going to require some major changes. “I decided that I was either going to be defeated by the lack of things that were provided,” he says, “or I was going to suck it and be able to figure it out myself.”

Determined to learn how to fuel his body for recovery, Hamilton enrolled in a local community college to study nutrition, which he “just fell in love with.” Having grown up in a food desert, he quickly realized he would need to educate himself on healthy eating and nutrition. “I was still on bed rest, so even though I couldn't be active yet, I knew that the food I ate could contribute to making me active again.”

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The birth of an idea

In January of 2015, with 100 pounds down, a new passion for health and fitness, and a purpose to share with the disabled community, Hamilton was ready to embark on the next chapter of his story. He not only survived his injury but began to thrive.

It was in that hospital bed, in a fusion of self-education, determination, and hope, that his nonprofit Disabled But Not Really (DBNR) was born.

Knowing he could share his knowledge with others, he took DBNR and began to partner with local gyms to launch an eight-week program with adaptive exercises to complement the health needs of those with disabilities.

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A whole new audience

Hamilton’s story gained a new level of popularity when he appeared as a participant in season four of Netflix’s Queer Eye. “I think people understood the authentic level of identity that I was pushing out,” he says of the experience.

“I hope it showed that allyship can work in different ways to change people's thought processes by being open-minded. I mean, I hadn't had my disability my whole life, so the way I perceived disability before isn't the way I do now. I believe that people can change, and I think, in doing the show, people started to embrace that.”

While the initial fitness program and newfound attention was a step in the right direction, it soon became clear to Hamilton that it was crucial to not simply focus on reps and gains, but to take a holistic approach to wellness.

“Most people that come to us probably don't have the confidence yet,” he says. “So, getting them into a gym was great, but getting them into a gym that lacks accessibility, inclusivity, or diversity was an issue. So, you might have confidence to come in, but you might not leave with confidence.”

After all, for the disabled community more than most, health is not just a luxury, but a road to independence and longevity.

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More than a number

Currently, more than one in four US adults has a disability, and more than five million adults require the use of a wheelchair. Unfortunately, these populations are at an outsized risk for cardiovascular disease.

In fact, research estimates that approximately half of wheelchair users with spinal cord injuries get no physical exercise due to their injury, underscoring the importance of accessible workout options for people in these conditions.

“I always tell people I go to the gym to make sure that I can be active every day,” says Hamilton. “You might see me doing dips in my wheelchair and think it's amazing, right? But I’m doing it to make sure I can transfer out of my chair easily. I'm grabbing a 20-pound weight from the floor because I want to be able to pick up my own groceries. The identity of this lifestyle is to show people you can create independence, no matter the circumstance.”

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A change for better

Shortly after Hamilton’s appearance on Queer Eye, the pandemic hit, shining a new light on the difficulties people with disabilities face. Forced out of public locations, he turned his own garage into a gym, opening it up to people who needed an inclusive community.

Soon, “it wasn't just people with disabilities coming to the garage, it was people that did not have a gym to go to anymore because of COVID,” says Hamilton. “We ended up building a whole community that was diverse and inclusive, and it was organic.”

After the success of the garage program, DBNR opened their first brick and mortar wellness center in Kansas City, offering not just personal training, but nutrition seminars, gratitude check-ins, self-awareness workshops, and even professional photoshoots.

DBRN also introduced the #HelpMeFit Challenge, a twelve-week program that challenges physical, emotional, and mental limits to create sustainable results. Additionally, the organization launched #HelpMeFit Mobile, a gym on wheels that can travel to areas with few resources to introduce wellness to underserved communities.

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Always looking ahead

After working with so many people in the community, Hamilton has a unique perspective on how far we still have to go as a society. “There are still places where the conversation is being had, but I find that it's more still on a comfort level than on an uncomfortable level,” he says.

“There needs to be more push when it comes to the conversation of understanding that disability comes in all forms. You may have access for someone that is blind,” he says, “but you might not have access for someone in a wheelchair. So that’s the level of awareness that still needs to be heard.”

Through his journey, Hamilton has seen firsthand the power that lives inside each of us, especially those who have been through hardship and come out the other side. When it comes to what inspires him most, it’s “watching people overcome their physical challenges just by seeing that they could do more things physically.”

“I’m a living testament of what wasn't provided to me and what that could have done for me. So now I'm eager to constantly teach and show people more, because disability comes second outside of who you are.”

9.6 percent of people with disabilities have heart disease, while it only affects 3.4 percent of those without.

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Discover actionable ways to get involved with Disabled But Not Really:

●       volunteer

●       donate

●       collaborate

Visit disabledbutnotreally.org/give for more information.

This article was originally published in the January-February 2024 issue of alive magazine (US edition).

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