Istead Rise fitness instructor living his dream

PUBLISHED: 16:31 16 October 2013 | UPDATED: 16:31 16 October 2013

Simon O'Connor instructing with Gemma Holdoway

Simon O'Connor instructing with Gemma Holdoway


Istead Rise man Simon O’Connor lost most of his sight following a brain tumour aged 11, but it hasn’t stopped him from chasing his dream.

The 52-year-old is the latest recruit on a scheme which encourages people with disabilities to work in the fitness industry.

He is in the middle of a 12-week placement at Cascades Leisure Centre in Thong Lane, Gravesend, as part of the Instructability Programme, and is enjoying every moment.

“I’d definitely encourage people to get involved, it’s a great scheme,” he says.

“The motto is that you can do anything if you can put your mind to it.

“I know a lot of people with disabilities would be reluctant to do something like this. They would think that their disability would hold them back and they wouldn’t be able to do it.

“I always wanted to be a fitness instructor, I’ve always been passionate about physical fitness, despite my disability, and now I’m realising that dream.”

Through the programme Simon, who has lived in Istead Rise for the past 40 years, has qualified as a level two gym instructor and a level three disability and exercise instructor.

He is assisted by helpers from the Kent Association for the Blind, when he works at Cascades on Wednesdays and Fridays, and as part of his placement he is offering sessions to people with disabilities on Monday afternoons.

Even as a child, Simon was determined not to let losing his sight rule his life.

In his spare time he volunteers at two London museums – the Natural History Museum in South Kensington and the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth – and he is involved in the ongoing community archaeology dig at Shorne Woods Country Park in Gravesend.

Simon, who lives with his guide dog Usca, said: “I can see some movement and light, but for all intent and purposes I’m completely blind. I can’t make out objects at all.

“I was fully sighted until I was 11 when I got the brain tumour. To be honest, it was a traumatic time when I went through it but there are lots of parts I can’t remember.

“I can still remember seeing some things that I’ll never see again. Things like numbers, wildlife and the different seasons.

“But I try to look on the bright side of life. I didn’t die when that was an immense possibility, and I’ve had a great life since the tumour.”

Aspire, a spinal injury charity and YMCAfit, a leading industry training provider, created the InstructAbility programme to enable disabled people to gain industry training, qualification and work expereince.

The project, funded by Sport England, has received widespread recognition with the 2012 Inspiremark, a UK Active Award for Innovation and most recently a Big Society Award from Prime Minister, David Cameron.

On completing the programme, instructors are encouraged to continue volunteering or progressing into paid employment.

Sonya Sims, of Gravesham Community Leisure, said: “People like Simon are a shining example of what can be achieved.

“He hasn’t let his disability stand in his way and he’s gone from strength to strength.

“The fact he’s local makes it an even better story.”

Simon is certainly optimistic about the future.

He said: “I’m really enjoying it at the moment. It’s really useful for the individual and creates good role models for other people with disabilities to follow.

“Hopefully it can help create some champions for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro as well.”

For more information on classes with Simon call Cascades on 01474 337471.

If you are interested in joining the instructability programme visit

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