Diagnosed with cerebral palsy (CP) at the age of 2, James Norris had a tough time participating in the sports he loved and wanted to play. At different times throughout his life, that also made it tough for him to fit in and have a positive sense of self. As an adult, he became dissatisfied with his physical condition and discovered fitness. As he saw the improvements in himself and got more passionate about the work, he decided to start Handi-Capable Fitness to support other people who were working to overcome various disabilities in order to play a sport or build a regular fitness practice. He now runs this 501c(3) non-profit and provides grants to others who are on the same path. We had the wonderful pleasure of meeting James when he was speaking at the SXSW Conference in Austin, TX. In addition to sharing his story, in this episode, James talks about the immediate impact the Neubie had on him by helping him get more wrist movement than he’s had in years as well as increased activation of the muscles he knows he needs to activate for standing but isn’t able to consciously recruit on his own. To learn more about his work, check out https://www.handicapablefitness.com/ and enjoy this inspiring conversation with James!
Garrett: Welcome everyone to the Nuefit undercurrent podcast. I’m joined today by James Norris, founder of Handi-Capable Fitness, which is a nonprofit organization based in his hometown of Boston, Massachusetts. And we’ve gotten to connect with James recently. He was here in Austin a few weeks ago for the south by Southwest conference and was presenting on some very interesting topics that we’ll get into today. And he’s doing really wonderful work, helping adaptive athletes be able to improve their quality of life, participate in sporting and other activities, and is just doing wonderful work in the world. So I’m super excited to have you on the show James, welcome.
James: Garrett. Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
Garrett: Yes. So in order to set the stage for why Handi-Capable Fitness exists and what you’re doing, can you start by sharing with us your personal story?
James: Absolutely. So I was born premature. I was two pounds, two ounces. I had to spend the first three months of my life in the NICU. But other than that, there was really no other disabilities or birth defects. It wasn’t until I was about one and a half when I went in for a hernia operation. It was during a time the mask came off my face and my brain was without air for about five and a half minutes. The doctors didn’t say anything to my parents, they just bundled me up and sent me home and they realized over time that I wasn’t hitting certain milestones that your typical two-year-old would.
So living in Boston, they called the children’s hospital, made an appointment and within minutes they’re like he has cerebral palsy. So I always tell people though, that I am who I am today because of my parents and just my family in general and my faith. They never really treated me any different. In fact, I tell people that I believe they held me to a higher standard because they didn’t want me to use my cerebral palsy as a crutch. So if I got a bad grade in school, guess what I had to do? I had to get on the phone and call my grandmother. I had to get on the phone and call my uncles and aunts and explain why I got that bad grade.
And you bet your bottom dollar that I didn’t get too many bad grades after that. One or two episodes of that, I was like, okay, I’m good. I’m good. That being said, there was also confidence issues growing up as a kid. I had friends and all that and I would talk to people, but I was really shy. Because I always thought that people saw the cerebral palsy before they saw James and it wasn’t until after years of reflection that I realized that that’s how I first saw myself. And growing up in Boston, I really love sports, but I knew I couldn’t play professionally or collegiately. So the next best thing for me was to go into broadcasting where I was able to work in radio for about five years here in the Boston area. And I loved it.
And for the first time, it really gave me the sense of confidence. I was finally James, and then CP was a part of me. It wasn’t roles reversed there. And then I had an opportunity to go to California and I’m thinking to myself, great, get to get out of the Boston cold, the snow. I don’t know who I’m going to bump elbows with. This is going to be the next step in my radio career. Then I get out there, work for six months and they came to us and said, the company’s struggling. We’re going to have to downsize, you being the low man on the totem pole., sorry, we got to lay you off.
Well, when that happened, I didn’t just lose my job. I lost my identity. So I went from living this active lifestyle. And when I say active lifestyle, I don’t mean, lifting weights and physical fitness. I mean, I was going to concerts, sporting events, social life, all those things. So then I fell into a depression because I didn’t have those things anymore. That’s when I started to develop unhealthy habits, eating excessively, alcohol, those sorts of things. And just put on a bunch of weight.
And I ended up coming back home to Boston and I get around on my knees and I live on the second floor. And I remember coming home from work one day and I was sweating like I just ran the Boston marathon. And I was like, oh man, I gotta do something, but I didn’t grow up in a fitness background. I didn’t know anything about nutrition. So literally I joined a local gym and I would watch YouTube to get ideas of what exercises to do because the only type of fitness that I had prior to this was occupational therapy, physical therapy, growing up through school, elementary school, middle school, that whole thing.
And finally, a trainer saw me and he is like, listen, he goes, you’re in here every day. You’re doing all this. He goes, let me design a program around you, your challenges, and your goals. So one thing led to another. I slowly started to see the weight come off. And when the weight came off, my confidence came back and I was documenting my journey for my friends and family to see, just taking videos on my phone. And he says to me, he goes, Hey James, he goes if you’re doing this, you should start a public account because you never know who you could inspire. So that’s how Handi-Capable Fitness, the social media pages came to be and kind of gained a little bit of a falling. But then I was like, well, if I’m doing this, there has to be other people out there that are doing something similar.
So that’s when I started to highlight other people with other disabilities and other challenges, because the goal was as we’re aimlessly scrolling through social media, I want everybody to be represented on the page, whether you have CP, an amputation, spinal cord injury, spinal bifida, whatever it is, I want you to be represented. So if you see somebody doing a Spartan race, rock climbing, playing sled hockey, I want you to then be like, oh man, I never thought I could do that with a spinal cord injury. Let me go out and try that. And next thing you know, it sparks their passion.
And one thing I didn’t say with that, I’ve lost about 65 pounds over this fitness journey time. And it’s really given me my confidence back. It’s given me truly my identity, I believe. And it’s the reason why I’m here today and doing the things that I’m doing. And I realize through that fitness journey that I’ve been given a lot in life. So I want to give back to other people. So then that’s when we created the Handi-capable fitness nonprofit, and our goal is to help those with challenges, get up, get active, get moving, however, it is that they deem necessary or possible through giving grants for equipment, personal training, physical therapy. We give travel grants to go to events, all these different things. So that’s kind of in a nutshell, in a big nutshell, a little bit of my story and then what our organization aims to do.
Garrett: That’s awesome. Thanks so much for sharing that. And I love that, how you’ve been able to take these different challenges that you’ve been through and leverage that into a way to inspire others and do some really good things in the world. And I like that. Get up, get active, get moving.
James: Yes. Thank you.
Garrett: That’s very good. So Handi-capable fitness when you transitioned away from radio and started doing this. So you started the organization from the time we’re talking here today, about five or six years ago, and then it officially became a 501C3, right? When was that?
James: Probably about a year and a half ago. Right in the midst of the pandemic. It was perfect timing. It was great.
Garrett: So as a 501C3 now, when you talk about giving grants to people to allow them to go to events, to train, to do things, to improve their quality of life, to explore what they’re capable of. Now when you talk about being able to give grants, as 501C3, you can receive donations and do fundraising and things like that, and then turn around and provide that money then, right?
James: Absolutely. Absolutely. So just over this past year, we were able to give out four grants. And we gave a travel grant to a young man who also has cerebral palsy, who has dreamt of always going surfing. So he took his travel grant, went down to Florida and did surfing for the first time. Another young man who also has cerebral palsy in Maine, he does track and field in his wheelchair and he needed a new race wheelchair. So we were able to step in and give him some funds towards his new race wheelchair so that he could continue to do what he’s doing. I actually believe he’s now a freshman in college or going to be a freshman in college, and he’s going to do cross country there as well. So that’s really cool.
Then the other person that we gave a grant to is a quadruple amputee. He’s 15 years old. He taught himself how to skateboard and his dream is to become a motivational speaker. So we were able to give him a grant to work with a professional speaking coach so that he could help craft his story in a way that when he goes into assemblies, it can really pack a punch and really deliver the message that he’s trying to deliver there, which don’t get me wrong he doesn’t need a public speaking coach to do that because his story in itself is absolutely amazing. Just he wanted to polish it up a little bit. So that’s where the public speaking coach came in.
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Garrett: Wow, that’s fabulous. I mean really using those funds to provide opportunities for people that are either just super fulfilling and rewarding or for him. Set him up on this stage, so he can make an impact and just that’ll pay dividends going forward and the way he can impact others. So that’s really cool. So if people feel inspired, are you accepting donations? Are you doing fundraising efforts? Or like, how are you operating?
James: So people can follow our journey as an organization. They can hear about more of my story on Handicapablefitness.com and you can make donations there.
Garrett: Awesome. And then that’s really cool. I know we’re talking about various ways to collaborate, that’s because we met fairly recently when you were down here. Can you tell everyone what you were doing here at South by Southwest? I know it was a partnership with live strong, which is a wonderful media company, a lot of health and fitness content. And can you tell us more about that relationship and what you’ve been doing together?
James: Yeah, so I had the privilege over the past year or so to work with Livestrong.com on several different projects. And I have to really give them credit because they have been the first mainstream fitness publication to really make an effort to include the adaptive fitness world. So they’ve done articles on adaptive fitness with videos of different exercises that people can do at home with little to no equipment. They’ve also done a couple of other healthy nutrition things and how our bodies break down food, but how it’s even more so important when you have somewhat of a disability to take care of your nutrition, all of that sort of thing. So they came up with the idea after somebody wrote an article to have a panel at South by Southwest. And that panel was about adaptive fitness and technology, and they asked me to be on the panel.
So the goal of the panel was to tackle a couple different things. One, it was to help educate people on the different types of equipment that is being developed already out there, or once these fantastic people come up with all of these ideas for this equipment, one of the barriers that they’re running into is funding to push it out to market. And so we’re trying to raise awareness for that, but then also once it does get pushed to market, oftentimes it becomes so expensive that the people in the handicapable population, most people are on a fixed income, so they can’t afford it. And the other thing that we talked about was what accessibility looked like in gyms, proper spacing between equipment, education for personal trainers.
Now there’s no way in heck that somebody can understand every disability that could possibly come through the doors. But right now, whether it’s Nacim or ACE certifications or whatever other certifications, unless it’s specific, there’s no real representation of what you could face if somebody that uses a wheelchair comes through your doors like this is some of the tips that you can give them or how you can work with them. So what we just tried to raise awareness of, Hey guys, this is what’s out here and there’s a whole big population that you guys could be missing out on, but we really believe that how change happens is through different conversations. So it was a great way to get the conversation started and we hope to kick the can down the road as we go along.
Garrett: That’s great. For people who don’t know, we’re talking about South by Southwest here, which is a multifaceted event here in Austin, every spring. And there’s a movie what’s it called like a film festival. There’s musicians, there’s like hundreds and hundreds of musicians and major music showcase. And then there’s south by interactive, this conference that has leading edge thinkers and presenters and companies in many areas across certainly health and also environment and finance and all sorts of different fields, science, and innovation. So it’s a very cool event and also you’re able to speak there and present and talk about these topics. So that’s really cool. And then, fortunately, serendipitously, we happened to be there. We were exhibiting, showing off the neubie and you came by and I know you got to work with Dr. Laura, from our team, the physical therapist who runs our neuro program.
James: I did. And it was absolutely amazing because literally I had never heard of the neubie beforehand and I had gone up to the table and I was just inquiring what it was about. And I was talking to Ramona, I believe, and she educated me on it. And then she goes, well, what is it that you do? And I said, well, handi-capable fitness. And she goes, oh my gosh, she goes, one of our doctors has been following handi-capable fitness forever through social media and absolutely loves what you’re doing. You have to come back and meet her. She’ll be here on Wednesday. So I ended up going and meeting with Laura had a great conversation. She put the newbie on me. And like I said, I had tried different tens units and things like that before. And I really didn’t know what to expect.
But I can honestly say it’s like something I’ve never used before. So basically she put it all over me but the thing that stood out was she put it on my left wrist, which for me, my left side was affected through the cerebral palsy. So I’ve never really had great range of motion. The tone is really high in there. So it’s been really difficult to manipulate movement and that sort of thing. And about just simply 10 minutes of using the neubie, it was absolutely amazing. I was able to move my wrist in a way that I hadn’t been able to move it since doing physical therapy or occupational therapy when I was in middle school, high school, and that sort of thing.
Then also what she did was she put it on my hamstrings and my glutes as well, and then had me stand up and I have a little bit of knowledge when it comes to training and that sort of thing because I trained at Mike [19:54 inaudible] conditioning here in Boston. And Mike has been absolutely amazing when it comes to that stuff. So I’ve really delve deep into the body and what it takes to move. And so I know that when you stand up, all the muscles are supposed to be recruited. But with the neubie, it was like I was able to do it without even having to really think about it. And for people that don’t have cerebral palsy or neurological challenges just to give you an idea, you can think about, okay, when I stand up, I have to engage my glutes, squeeze my hamstrings, all of that but it really takes a lot of effort and energy and focus to really be like, okay, this is what needs to be done.
And like I said, for the first time it was, I don’t want to say effortless, but it was pretty close to effortless. I was like, wow, I don’t have to think. It’s just doing it. And it was really amazing. And one of my good friends who was also my trainer was there with me and he was like, James, he goes, I’ll be honest with you. He goes, when I saw your wrist move like that, he goes, I almost teared up because we’ve been working together for so long and he goes, we’ve made a lot of progress. He goes, but we just haven’t had this technology. So to see your wrist move in that way after just a short period of time was absolutely amazing.
So I can’t say enough about it. And then I’ve read your book and heard some of the other testimonials about the woman who was paralyzed 25 years ago. And now she’s up walking and dancing with her husband. I’m not going to lie that’s my favorite success story that you guys have in there. Every time I think about that, I just smile from ear to ear. Because I’m like, that is absolutely amazing. So I really can’t say enough about your product and I only used it for 10 minutes, so it really did make a huge impact on me.
Garrett: I can’t wait to see what 20 or 30 minutes will look like.
James: That’s what I’m saying. I’ll be on dancing with the stars.
Garrett: That’s right. I’m half joking there, but in all seriousness, we are excited to be able to collaborate with you and see what more work can do and, and how far we can get. So it’s really exciting and I just want to acknowledge and applaud the work that you’ve done, not only with yourself to improve your own physical function and health and performance abilities. And also then to be able to turn that around and speak to other groups and inspire others and be a voice for, and an advocate for, and representation for people who have similar types of challenges. I think it’s just awesome. I want to thank you for the work that you’re doing.
James: Thank you so much. And it’s definitely a two-way street. I’ve been fortunate to have so many great people who have invested in me in my journey, but also it’s my goal, whenever I start working with somebody new, whether it be a trainer, a coach, or whatever the case may be, it’s my goal to go in there and also teach them something. Because let’s face it, not everybody knows about cerebral palsy or any other neurological disability. So if I can then teach the professional something and next thing you know they feel comfortable working with somebody else, who they might otherwise not work with in the future. If they feel comfortable working with them because of their experience with me, that’s what it’s all about. And that’s honestly, I do what I do to benefit me and my quality of life, but also I’d be lying if I didn’t say to you that second part was a big driving factor of why I do the things that I do.
Garrett: That’s awesome. And on that topic of educating others and creating awareness and spreading this message, before we say goodbye here, can we plant the seed and let people know about a book that’s coming out?
James: Yes. So fingers crossed, everything that Garrett just talked about, we hope to publish a book in the summer of this year. It’s going to be a children’s book around 32 pages, and it’s basically going to be loosely based on my life and my journey and some of the challenges that I’ve overcome or that I’ve faced, and then overcame, because the reason for doing that was, it came out of a conversation with my mother a few years back. And she goes when you were growing up, I would go to bookstores and all of these different places and look for books for you to read so you could find a person like you, a character like you, and they’re simply just was nothing.
So it was my goal to be like, okay, well, if there’s not this representation, which it has been getting better, I don’t want to say it hasn’t because companies have made a real push towards inclusion and all of that sort of thing. And it’s great, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. So I said to myself, well, let’s bridge the gap and come out with this kid’s book. So I’m really excited to make that happen because honestly, if you would’ve told me 10 years ago, oh you’re going to be a published author of a kid’s book. I would’ve said I don’t know about that, but stranger things have happened and I’m really looking forward to it. And I just really hope that it can make a big impact on the handi-capable population and their families.
Garrett: That’s fabulous. Thanks so much for sharing that and really excited to get that book out. We’ll certainly post about it and share it when it comes out. You mentioned your website is Handicapablefitness.com, and then Instagram. Is Instagram, the place that people want to follow you?
James: Yeah. I mean, we’re on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and it’s all handi-capable fitness. The only thing that’s different is on the Instagram there’s underscores between handi-capable and fitness. I would love to hear from all you guys, hear your feedback, and if you would like grants, we are working on a grant application now so you’ll be able to find that on the website soon. So if you’re looking to get a grant and we can help you out, that would be awesome, but please feel free to email, send a message through Instagram and we will definitely get back to you and help in any way possible.
Garrett: Yeah. So assuming you’re not driving right now, whip out your Instagram it’s handi_capable_fitness, two underscores in there.
James: You got it. Perfect.
Garrett: James, thanks so much for joining us on the show and we’re really excited to continue our conversations and talk about ways to work not only with you, but the other handi-capable athletes that you’re supporting and just want to keep watching and supporting the amazing work that you’re doing.
James: Absolutely. Garrett, thank you so much for the opportunity and your time. Please tell the team I said, hello as well.
Garrett: I’ll do it. I’ll do it. Thanks so much. Thanks everyone for tuning into this episode of the undercurrent podcast, and we’ll see you next time.
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