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JobOne employee in wheelchair teaches fitness classes to people with disabilities

I had a great time writing this profile about a JobOne employee and her unlikely hobby.

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Michele Steuer teaching Turbo Kick class from wheelchair

JobOne employee Michele Steuer’s hobby is teaching Turbo Kick classes to people with disabilities, or anyone who wants to try the moves from a seated position.

Many of us have been hooked by persuasive infomercials that promise to change our lives, especially early in a new year when we’ve resolved to get more exercise or eat healthier. That’s what happened in January of 2008 to Michele Steuer, a receptionist and 25-year JobOne employee.

Michele and her parents came across a TV infomercial for Turbo Jam, a high-energy exercise video system developed by fitness expert Chalene Johnson. The workout combines shadow boxing, kickboxing, sports drills and simple dance moves, and Johnson’s zeal is infectious. “I fell in love with it the minute I saw it,” Steuer remembers. She was so inspired that she ordered the video.

Here’s the twist. Michele has used a wheelchair her whole life because she was born with spina bifida.

Spina bifida is a relatively common birth defect where the bones of a person’s spine don’t close properly around the spinal cord during pregnancy. People with moderate to severe spina bifida often have nerve damage and some level of paralysis in the legs that may require them to use a wheelchair, crutches or braces.

So Michele wasn’t exactly an obvious candidate for kickboxing.

“Do you think you can do this?” her mother asked. “Heck yeah, I can modify this,” she answered. Michele resolved to figure out how to adapt the program to her abilities, turning various lower-body kick moves into equivalent upper-body punches. Little did she know that this newfound passion would propel her to become a certified instructor and teach classes for people with disabilities.

Michele loved the Turbo Jam video from the start. “I was doing it seven days a week,” she said. The exercise, combined with following a low-carb diet, helped her lose weight and become more flexible. Important for someone who grows stiff sitting in a wheelchair all day.

After about six months, Michele talked to the director of a week-long summer camp for people with disabilities that was sponsored by a local church. “I was telling her how excited I am about this program. And she said, ‘Can you show it to us at camp?’” Michele gave it some thought and decided that she had enough time to modify a routine and put it to music. But she wasn’t sure how to go about demonstrating it to other people.

When Michele learned about an upcoming Turbo Kick (similar to Turbo Jam) training class, that’s when it clicked, and she realized she wanted to become a certified instructor. Knowing her disability would make her different from most participants, Michele initially felt some hesitation. What if they told her she couldn’t pass the training? But she was welcomed with open arms. “The minute I came into that room, you could feel the love,” she recalls.

Michele got certified to teach Turbo Kick in April 2009. Later, she also became a certified instructor for Hip Hop Hustle, another exercise program she describes as being “more dancy” than Turbo Kick.

Michele taught Turbo Kick moves at the summer camp for three years until it closed due to a lack of funding. She tried to pull together a Turbo Kick fundraiser for the camp, but the idea came too late so she had to scrap it. Afterward, Michele asked the staff at Xtreme Family Fitness in Lee’s Summit, where she’d planned to hold the fundraiser, “Would there be any way I could just do a class and see how people like it?” They said yes.

Michele held an open house and taught her first Turbo Kick lessons at Xtreme Family Fitness in June 2012. Her mother cautioned her not to get too disappointed if the class didn’t pan out, and Michele steeled herself for low attendance. But as the only instructor in town teaching Turbo and Hustle from a wheelchair, she’s begun to attract attention and interest. She’s taught Turbo Kick and Hustle classes one Saturday afternoon a month ever since, charging attendees $5 per class.

While most of her participants have physical disabilities, Michele says, “I will teach anybody. Just because you’re able-bodied doesn’t mean you can’t do a modification of Turbo or Hustle.” For example, someone with a foot injury could still sit in a chair and do the upper body moves.

She has gotten positive feedback so far from attendees. “They have a lot of fun in the class… I can see it in their faces when they come. They don’t come tired, they come excited.”

Michele encourages people to stop by her class to watch, especially if they want to test the waters before signing up as a participant. “My motto is if you can move your upper body, you can do Turbo. I don’t care how far you can punch or how high you can punch or whatever.”

She has been impressed by stories other area instructors have shared about class participants that have physical disabilities, including a woman with one leg who attends a PiYo (pilates and yoga combination) class. “And she did everything with only one leg,” Michele said, amazed.

Michele’s goal is to reach more people in the disabilities community with the message: “Hey, there’s more stuff out there than just your basic chair exercises, or your basic exercises period.” She knows the benefits of physical activity are even more important for people with disabilities, since they tend to have less active lifestyles. Michele likes the interaction that’s possible in a class setting. But she’s also willing to teach on a one-to-one basis.

These days, Michele has slowed down to doing Turbo Kick on her own just three or four times a week because she spends more time caring for her mother. Both are proud of her accomplishments.

“I wish I could’ve started this when my dad was alive,” she said. “He would be, like, beaming. I know he would.”

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