Rachael Hutchinson and Jon Thaxton are the Co-founders of Able2B, a unique, fully adapted Norwich gym for kids and adults with a disability. Ahead of a Grand Open Day for its new extension, Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon Rachael explains why they are passionate about people discovering their ability
Able2B has come a long way since its small beginnings as a single class in a Norwich boxing club in 2016. The community interest company, set up to develop services that help improve function for children and adults with a disability, can now be found in a Unit on a Norwich industrial estate which has recently expanded to twice the size, complete with new Hydrotherapy Pool.
The Able2B initiative was developed by Rachael Hutchinson, Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon, and Jon Thaxton, former British and European Boxing Champion. The aim was to help people with a disability optimise their aerobic fitness and muscle strength as well as improve their concentration and self confidence in a fun way.
Rachael and Jon go back a long way. ‘I’m a Norfolk girl and interestingly, both me and Jon went to Sprowston High School and our dads played football together,’ recalls Rachael, sitting in the new office space which overlooks the new extension. Downstairs, a child with a disability is doing an adapted fitness class with the help of a specialist team which included a physiotherapy student and a Duke of Edinburgh Award volunteer. Meanwhile, next door, Jon puts someone through their paces in a virtual adapted boxercise class.
Rachael continues: ‘I went off to study medicine, mainly up North – Leeds and Sheffield – and went into orthopaedics. I went to America and to work in Melbourne Children’s Hospital – which has got one of the biggest functional gait labs in the world – working mainly with kids with cerebral palsy and other disability type problems.’
She eventually returned home to Norfolk with her then young family back in 2008, making history at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital by becoming the first female orthopaedic surgeon to take up a consultant post. The Hospital went on to develop the largest paediatric orthopaedic department in the region – becoming the central hub hospital for three district general hospitals.
Rachael and Jon developed their Able2B initiative, having recognised the limitations of standard NHS therapy in providing regular self-driven interventions that could optimise outcomes for children. Having grown from strength-to-strength, Able2B has shown that combining expert medical knowledge alongside experience trainers can lead to huge improvements in day-to-day outcomes above and beyond that expected by most people.
Rachael says: ‘We need to emulate the model done by elite sport and look at all the elements that mean someone can function better. From individual elements of making their body right (whether that be surgery, a splint or whatever), they need strength and conditioning, they need endurance, they need the right mindset, but they also need the right perceptions from family and society. Those bits are playing the biggest part to what happens when they get in their 20s.’
And in the case of adults who have experienced a stroke, for example, the aim is to get them to place where they can ‘continue with effectively the same life but potentially doing things in a different way.’ Able2B uses a Social Prescribing Model to improve outcomes in a cost-effective way. ‘You support them and empower them back to what they can do in an adaptive type of way – that’s the ethos.’
Both Rachael and Jon are experts in their field. ‘Jon, because of his own sporting background – coaching as a professional boxer and personal trainer, and his anti-bullying and motivational work – has years and a wealth of experience on how to achieve that, when it comes to mindset and trying to get someone to feel positive about themselves again.’ Rachael, meanwhile, is a Medical Classifier for British Para-swimming and Lead Medical Classifier for British Disability Table Tennis. She adds: ‘We are changing lives, literally. We’ve got one young lad who can now live independently and we’ve had three or four young people who can start walking independently – which will completely change the ball game for them.’
Rachael’s mum had a brain haemorrhage 10 years ago and is another good case in point. ‘My mum was set up at home with a wheelchair and everything and, nine years on, she has walked across the gym. She’s got one of the most complex neurological problems possible, because she’s got no sensation on one side and no control on the other, but she is at home and instead of pushing herself in a wheelchair, taking out all the skirting boards, she’s going round with a little walking frame and the more she’s doing that the stronger she’s getting.’
The new expansion at Able2B, partly funded by a Government Innovate Grant and the European Regional Development Fund, will be showcased at the Grand Open Day this Saturday (May 13). Rachael, Jon and the team (which is also made up of Jon’s daughter Ella) will be able to demonstrate the new ‘SwimSpa Room’; Adapted Massage, to help reduce spasticity and tone; Rebound Therapy Services, for severely disabled individuals; as well as launching Frame Running Club. They will also be showcasing a new rig system, allowing individuals who cannot weight-bear the chance to be in a vertical standing position with the option to gradually introduce body weight as and when they become stronger.
Rachael and Jon believe their service is unique in the UK and the biggest setting specifically to support all disabilities (physical, learning, behavioural, sight-impaired, hearing impaired), including complex neuro-disability where control and stability are a major issue. Able2B collaborates with the NHS services, schools, care homes and other organisations in Norfolk. Rachael says: ‘I would love to see this concept used in collaboration with the public sector across the UK.’
Preparing for the Grand Open Day, she says: ‘I still sit and think ‘I don’t get how this has happened.’ Jon always says that I underestimate myself.’ Jon and Rachael may have gone off in different directions after leaving Sprowston High School, but she says: ‘If you look at the fundamentals of what makes us tick – we get pleasure from seeing other people achieve.’
Able2B will officially open its new gym extension and services as part of a Grand Open Day on Saturday, May 13, from 9am-3pm. Able2B is located at Unit 8/9, Gilchrist Close, Bessemer Road, Norwich NR4 6AT. On the day, there will be a raffle, refreshment and cakes. Then, on Sunday June 11, the annual Discover your Ability event will take place at Norwich Lower School Playing Fields. Visit the Event page. For more information about Able2B, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 01603 986407. Follow Able2B on Facebook and Twitter.
Featured images by Mary Doggett of ETT Photography