Meet Wesley Hamilton, the Founder of Disabled But Not Really Who's Empowering Athletes of All Abilities

The non-profit founder is helping disabled athletes define their own identities through mind and body wellness programs — and he's not slowing down anytime soon.

Wesley Hamilton
Photo: Courtesy

For most of his life, Wesley Hamilton never engaged in fitness or wellness practices. The communities he grew up in within Kansas City, Missouri didn't encourage health-promoting activities, and although he considered himself to be "overweight" for his 5-foot, 5-inch frame, he was comfortable with his image, he tells Shape.

But in 2012, 24-year-old Hamilton was driven to rethink his relaxed approach to wellness: In January of that year, Hamilton was shot multiple times and sustained a spinal cord injury, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down, he explains. The combination of his injury and his weight resulted in health complications, causing him to undergo a handful of surgeries, and for the following two years, he was prescribed bed rest for 21 hours a day, he says. "Just dealing with these health complications and being put on bed rest, I wasn't able to be a father," says Hamilton, who has sole custody of his then-toddler-aged daughter. "I got into this mindset that I had to do whatever I had to do to become better."

The first step to doing so? Beefing up his knowledge of nutrition. During the three hours a day he was able to get out of bed and leave his home, Hamilton attended a dietetics course at a local community college, which taught him that food can act as medicine, he explains. So, he started applying his nutrition education to his own food choices, eating more fruits, veggies, and meals that made him feel well physically. By January of 2015, Hamilton learned from his doctors that he had lost roughly 100 pounds. Suddenly, his lifelong "debilitating mindset" that had kept him from working on his physical and mental wellbeing vanished, he says. "I always say I was disabled mentally before I became disabled physically — I accepted what life was and that mindset created a level of negativity and hate around me," says Hamilton. "Once I got healthier, I didn't care about being in a wheelchair. I had self-esteem and confidence and love for myself."

He harnessed that renewed energy, and within just a few weeks, Hamilton founded Disabled But Not Really, a 501(c)3 organization based in Kansas City that empowers disabled individuals to take ownership of their disability and define their own identity through fitness, nutrition, and mental health programs. While Hamilton himself had already picked up some nutrition knowledge and had recently begun casually working out in local gyms, it wasn't until the following January that he found himself thrown into the world of adaptive fitness. He met wheelchair bodybuilders IRL and was introduced to adaptive CrossFit online. Before he knew it, he was competing in back-to-back competitions for both sports just two months later, says Hamilton. "​​Once I started to be able to take control of my own self and go against the odds of so many…it really just did something for me," he says. "I was like, 'I'm really changing the perception and the paradigm of what people think of when they think of disability.'"

Wesley Hamilton, founder of disabled but not really

I'm really changing the perception and the paradigm of what people think of when they think of disability.

— Wesley Hamilton, founder of disabled but not really

And the steadfast community within those sports only made him stronger. Over the course of his three-year stint as a professional adaptive athlete, Hamilton says he met folks with different hurdles and abilities — people who were missing limbs, individuals with multiple sclerosis or cerebral palsy — and yet, they were all athletes. "I would always say, if I saw a guy with no legs climbing rope, you think I'm going to make excuses?" he says. "Even though I have my legs, and they don't move, there's a different amount of mental strength you have to deal with from that perspective, waking up every day. Those are things that I grabbed from the community: that mental toughness, the ability to create your own reality despite what you don't have physically. You could only get that from that community."

That inclusive, energizing community was exactly what Hamilton wanted to create within Disabled But Not Really, so in 2018, the organization launched the #HelpMeFit challenge. During the eight-week program, athletes with disabilities participate in one-on-one training sessions, small group workouts, group fitness classes at a local gym, as well as nutrition seminars and mental health and gratitude check-ins, says Hamilton. "The whole purpose of the #HelpMeFit challenge is to help people just fit in with who they are," he explains. "It's shaped around identity for the most part, and we attack the mental, the physical, and the overall wellbeing of the individual."

Once those two months are up, the athletes take part in a professional photo shoot and video interview, giving them the opportunity to tell the world who they want to be known as, says Hamilton. "That's really where [the idea of] 'help me fit' comes in," he explains. "All these [activities] helped you become who you are, helped you fit into your true self. Now, you get to show the world that true self, not the person that the world assumes you are."

The shift seen in these athletes' mindsets has been beautiful, says Hamilton. Folks who acquire their disabilities later in life often struggle to come to terms with their new way of living, but the #HelpMeFit challenge has helped these types of individuals come out of their shells, he says. "What you see in these eight weeks is people finding a way to accept. Once they accept, they create an identity around that that allows them to be proud of who they are," he says. "By the end of the program, they're willing and determined to do more."

And testing out new fitness challenges, in particular, allows them to move forward, he says. Back in 2018, for instance, one athlete who had been using a wheelchair for 15 years wanted to perform pull-ups but didn't have the confidence to try by himself, says Hamilton. When he finally gave it a shot during the program, he knocked out about 30 reps without breaking a sweat, he recalls. "Fitness is just a great way to help anyone reach a milestone that they didn't think they could reach," he adds. (

Currently, the #HelpMeFit challenge takes place about once a year in order to best give athletes individualized attention and celebration, but Hamilton has his sights set on spreading the organization's impact. Last year, Disabled But Not Really opened a mobile gym to assist with community outreach and encourage more folks to sign up for the program. And now, the organization is partnering with gyms in Los Angeles — and, hopefully down the road, others across the country — to adopt the #HelpMeFit model. The goal: Having people with disabilities and able-bodied individuals work out in the same spaces, says Hamilton. "If we can find gyms that are wanting to be inclusive, we'd come in with the equipment, the resources, and then help with the sign-ups [to establish] the DBNR #HelpMeFit challenge everywhere," he explains. "If you go through the model, you create confident individuals that now will be willing to be a part of your gym community."

Though growing the organization — and, of course, staying on top of his own fitness routine — requires some serious hustle, Hamilton isn't one to let the workload get the best of him. "I think when I look at my life, I believe I was reborn to do the work I do," he says. "I take accountability for my mistakes and my actions that maybe led to me being in this position, but I don't fault me being in this position. I think because of that, I understand that life has a time clock. Every day, I want to be able to give my best self and not be defeated by the things that could be physically exhausting."

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