Had it been several years ago, I might have attempted to say that so many different kinds of people do Pilates, that there are so many different types of students we might teach in one day, let alone one week. But not now, because there was a sunny day ahead to be enjoyed. 

 It did get me thinking about this latest generalisation about Pilates, or about who does Pilates - Pilates is for ‘ladies’ who lunch, ladies who are vain, ladies who must have far too much time on their hands, whilst goodness me, some of us more community minded citizens are busy selling meringues to benefit charity and are able to look after our health with just a brisk walk and garden grown runner beans. (Nothing against gardening or runner beans. Both are great!)

Like other teachers, I have heard many stereotypes and assumptions, including the phrase ‘you guys are all pelvic floor, aren’t you?’ Apart from glamourous media images, group classes can vary from hour long lessons in pelvic clock exercises right to the latest energetic hybrids (Pilates with spinning anyone?). Pilates has always had an incredibly diverse clientele, so it’s easy to understand how conflicting perceptions can exist. But the ladies who lunch image, in my experience, has little to do with the people we teach and assist on an everyday basis, and gives little credit to our clients, whoever they are; it belittles their motivations in learning Pilates and coming back week after week.

Rosanna has been my client since the mid 2000’s, having started Pilates with Rebecca Gould in about 2002. Her journey into Pilates has not been conventional by anyone’s definition, and the work we do on a 1-1 basis is truly unique to her own exercise needs. Happy to increase awareness of how disability affects people’s lives, and the assumptions society makes about disabled people, she has very kindly agreed to share her own story here.

Rosanna was born in 1978 with spina bifida. She required an operation to remove a sac of fluid on her spine soon after birth, which unfortunately meant that some of the nerves feeding her legs were cut in the process, and as she puts it, her legs did not grow in the usual way. A further surgery was needed to correct the positioning of her legs and feet, and she was delayed in learning to walk. At the age of ten she had a further operation due to wear and tear on her hips. Being in and out of hospital in her early childhood was unsettling, but she was fortunate to have enormous determination herself, and a very supportive family who endeavoured to help her become independent in every way they possibly could.

The frequent trips in and out of hospital had a significant effect on Rosanna’s education. Missing a great deal of school time was one of her biggest challenges growing up. The surgery at the age of ten alone led to her being in and out of hospital, and out of the classroom, for the best part of a year. This was compounded with the loss of much of her early years and then infant school learning. Understandably, she fell behind with her reading. But an important battle was won when Rosanna’s mum insisted she be able to attend a mainstream school.

‘They wanted to send me to a special needs school that dealt mostly with complex educational needs,’ Rosanna says. ‘It was a school that catered for people with major learning difficulties, and students who were very limited in mobility. The reason they wanted to send me there was that they didn’t have disabled facilities in the local primary school, but I did not actually have learning disabilities. My mother fought for me to go to the mainstream school, and I’m glad she did, because had I been in that environment, I wouldn’t have been able to learn anything.’

In the end, Rosanna went to the mainstream school, which had to make arrangements to accommodate her, by adding special hand bars on the steps from the class to the playground and other areas of the school where the steps could not be avoided. Her experiences with inclusion were varied, particularly with respect to PE lessons, where she was sometimes allowed to participate and sometimes not, depending on the teacher. One thing she remembers vividly is being made to sit on the bench when everyone was playing netball because there seemed to be no way that she could be accommodated. During rounders however, Rosanna would hit the ball, and a classmate would run for her. ‘I had good classmates at the time,’ she says.

Despite the concerns of teachers, Rosanna’s mum insisted she be allowed to use the climbing frame, as long as she didn’t climb too high. Her best friend would help her on the frame, something that might raise eyebrows but at the time was good for both Rosanna and her friend, with whom she is still in touch.

The many interruptions to her primary school education had a profound impact on her secondary school years. By this time, she had missed out on many of the critical areas of learning that her peers had had, and although there was learning support, there was a lack of information provided to Rosanna and her family. When it came time to study Shakespeare, the teacher would send her out of the classroom for special tuition. When she asked the teacher about this, she was told that every student would go out of the classroom at some point. 

‘But then I would always be one of the ones that were sent out,’ Rosanna recalls, ‘and there was just no explanation as to why. We would have to sit with another teacher, who would practice reading with the students - but all I remember was that he would read with the other kids and then let me pick up a copy of ‘Where’s Wally’ from the pile of books in the middle of the table. So he would let me get away without really doing anything or practicing reading skills, let alone Shakespeare. There was learning support, but it felt to me like I had been labelled, or branded as something.’

Rosanna has good memories of school and had good friends but unfortunately was also bullied at times. She was out of school for medical treatment so often during the early years that she believes this led her to miss out on the hard wiring required to learn new information and skills at the same pace as other students during secondary school. This had a huge knock-on effect on her education along with the early assumption that as a disabled child she would be served by a primary school catering for very complex physical and learning difficulties. The lack of communication regarding why she was excluded from certain classes and how she might improve led to confidence and anxiety issues. Rosanna was finally allowed into English classes later in the year when the school recognised she was unhappy; but by that time, they had moved onto other texts, and were well familiar with the material, leaving Rosanna feeling oblivious to what was being discussed in the classroom. With English being such a critical foundation for all of the other subjects, Rosanna was devastated when she failed her GCSE’s.

‘This is probably the main reason that I have had anxiety, rather than the disability itself. My academic experiences were definitely a huge factor,’ she says.

But Rosanna can attribute much independence to her own hard work and the support of her family. ‘My parents told my teachers that if I fell down, they shouldn’t pick me up, that I was able to get up myself and I didn’t need a bunch of people panicking and rushing to help me,’ Rosanna says.

In her last year of college, a surgeon at the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore offered her surgery to correct a major curvature of the spine resulting from the spina bifida. This proved a major breakthrough for Rosanna. A doctor had said she was lucky to still be walking, and people with spina bifida ‘always’ end up in wheelchairs. The conversation left Rosanna tearful, so her father charged back into the doctor’s office to ask him exactly what he had said. When the doctor explained, her dad said there must surely be something that could be done. The doctor then decided to refer Rosanna to a colleague who was a specialist at Stanmore.

The spinal surgery was a success. There are rods inserted from the top of the spine to the lower ribs, and her back was straightened about 90-95%. Whilst contraindicating some exercises due to the lack of movement at the vertebral segments, this also prevents the curvature from worsening and allows Rosanna to stand significantly straighter than she was able to as a teenager. However, a side effect of the surgery was that Rosanna’s hips got knocked further out of alignment. The hip joint was corrected surgically as well; prior to this further operation, her leg and foot were turning all the way out to the side when she walked.

Rosanna has worn a calliper and orthotic shoes since childhood, and the structure of her hip joint now differs as a result of the corrective surgery; there is no ball and socket structure on the right hip, but rather a small piece of bone acting as a shelf under the leg, which means the range of movement differs from what we would expect and from the movement available at the left hip. Hip rotation is limited, as is extension. Fortunately, Rosanna can bend her knees to a certain degree, which allows for small to medium range squatting movements and sometimes non-articulated bridging to help keep her lower limbs strong. She can kneel with support placed underneath the knee and ankle joints. When she first started Pilates, it was a case of lots of standing and balancing movements for help with posture and learning to walk again with all the changes that resulted from the two major surgeries. When Rebecca relocated, Rosanna and I continued lower body strengthening, along with work Rebecca had initiated in practicing walking up and down stairs, working on the shifting of weight with each up and down journey. Seated work on the Swiss ball also helps with alignment work.

Along with the necessity of keeping the lower limbs strong, there are existing muscle imbalances and some degree of curvature remaining even with the success of the spinal surgery which can cause much tension and discomfort throughout the back and shoulder girdle. We regularly do work to help release this tightness while respecting certain movement restrictions in the spine, along with exercises.

Pilates is not the only thing that keeps Rosanna active. She works out on the exercise bike and the treadmill at home or at the leisure centre, (staff are able to assist her in getting on and off the equipment) and is also an accomplished swimmer, having learned through classes for the disabled as a child. Learning to swim, earning all the badges and milestones on the way, was a ‘lifesaver’, according to Rosanna.

The programme and tuition were excellent but seem to have been overrun by profit concerns when the local leisure centre was renovated. The local leisure centre had once held a two-hour swimming session for the disabled every Sunday, but ironically, they dropped this session after new renovations to make the centre more accessible! The disabled swimming session was moved to a Tuesday lunchtime. ‘This basically means they’re assuming disabled people don’t have jobs and can get to the pool in the middle of a working day,’ Rosanna says. Despite efforts to get the leisure centre, (which like many leisure centres, had become part of a larger private parent company), to reinstate the Sunday sessions, their voices weren’t heard.

Even though the swimmers were capable, Rosanna feels it was safer to have a separate session – requirements of disabled people vary greatly, and one person’s needs cannot be compared to another’s, which was easier to accommodate in a special session. Far from being unemployed and available in the middle of the daytime, Rosanna has in fact been with the Metropolitan Police in office-based roles for twenty-two years. In college, she picked up academically, which she feels was largely helped by doing research for her schoolwork in the library. ‘There was no internet so you had to look through the books,’ she says, ‘nowadays they can just ask Alexa!’ When Rosanna was preparing for her wedding, we spent some of the Pilates lesson time walking in the shoes that had been made for the occasion so that she would be used to them when walking down the aisle and enjoying the big day. She has a daughter now, aged seven, and like many women, juggles home, work and family life.

My experience with Rosanna as a client is that she is incredibly resilient and determined. She has and is defying expectations people had of her both physically and in life. She has maintained an office career requiring organisational and of course literacy skills for years, maintains a home, and is certainly walking! She has tried a range of different exercises, some of which suit her better than others, but is always aware of the need to keep moving. ‘I really think the exercise helps keep me able to move and do the things that I want to do,’ she says.