Home » ‘People Saw Me as a Novelty Act’: Meet the UK’s First Blind Personal Trainer

‘People Saw Me as a Novelty Act’: Meet the UK’s First Blind Personal Trainer

‘People Saw Me as a Novelty Act’: Meet the UK’s First Blind Personal Trainer

After losing his sight at age 26, James O’Driscoll has spent more than two decades proving that disabilities don’t make you less able. Now, through his company, Simply FITT, he has a vision to revolutionise the fitness industry.

This story is part of Men’s Health’s #FitForEveryBody initiative, which aims to explore the challenges that keep men from participating in sports and fitness – and what training communities can do to foster greater inclusivity.

I lost sight in my left eye overnight, aged 26. No one knew what was wrong. After lumbar punctures, CT scans and MRI scans, I was diagnosed with a genetic condition called Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy. The chances of me getting it were one in 50,000. Within six weeks I was completely blind.

My flat was repossessed, and I was put into a council flat miles from where I’d lived. I had to start from scratch, learning how to take care of myself. If I’d been a kid or been retired, they could have helped me, but people my age just fell through the cracks. I started drinking and smoking too much, eating the wrong kinds of food. My self-esteem was terrible. I woke up one morning and the flat stank and there were beer cans everywhere. It was a moment of clarity. I said, ‘I can’t do this any more.’

‘Exercising blind is almost an out-of-body experience. It emphasises the mind-muscle connection’

Fitness is something I’ve always enjoyed. I’m from a big Irish family with six brothers. One of them had a York Multi Gym and I would always sneak into his room and use it. Later, at work, lads would be reading Maxim and I’d be reading Men’s Health. I knew fitness would help me, so I bought a rowing machine. I’d do an hour a day, then press-ups and pull-ups. I had a guide dog and I’d walk him for longer and longer.

Exercising blind is almost an out of body experience. I think, ‘How are my bones working? How are my joints working?’ And it emphasises the mind-muscle connection.

I recruited my nephew to take me to a gym. A member of staff said, ‘What’s a blind guy going to do at a gym?’ as I was standing right there. I left and went to a local gym where people helped me through it. One of them said, ‘You really know what you’re doing, why don’t you get qualified?’

It took a long time, with many barriers to break through, but I finally qualified as a fitness coach in 2009 and became the UK’s first blind PT in 2011. I was able to get a job at a Virgin Active. People still doubted me, or saw me as a novelty, but within nine months I’d made it to fitness manager.

Now, together with my wife Louise, we run our own gym. I have 32 clients, and I’ve trained people with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and PTSD, as well as blind clients. At 52, I’m probably in the best shape of my life. My favourite workout is a Chris Hemsworth challenge – we nicknamed it our ‘Thor workout’: 10 barbell biceps curls, 10 overhead presses, 10 triceps extensions, 10 squats, 10 lunges on each leg, 10 bent-over rows and 10 oblique twists. You have to perform 10 rounds without stopping.

A lot of people with disabilities may spend their time sitting around doing nothing because it’s intimidating to go into a gym, but it needs to be the norm to welcome them into that space. Companies need to work on inclusivity.