Aspire was founded in 1983 around the kitchen table of Shannie Ross’s home in Hampstead, North West London. A friend, trainee doctor Scott Glickman, was working on the London Spinal Unit at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore. He told her that the state-of-the-art medical treatment on the unit was being compromised by inadequate rehabilitation facilities. Together with businessman Ben Freedman and Spinal Unit medical director, Ian Bayley they decided to set up Aspire to raise funds to improve the London Spinal Unit rehabilitation facilities.

Aspire founders

Aspire founders

Their vision quickly grew, and instead of just purchasing equipment, Bayley suggested that Aspire might build a whole new rehabilitation unit next to the spinal unit. Almost at once the idea of opening that facility to the general public, so as to promote integration between non-disabled and disabled users, was adopted.

Andrew Walker, a lecturer at the Architectural Association in London, was appointed to design the new building. He had incurred a spinal cord injury and was a wheelchair user himself. In 1990, the £2 million facility was opened by HRH the Princess of Wales, who became Aspire’s royal patron and visited the facilities on many occasions.

Princess Diana opening Mike Heaffey Centre   Princess Diana and a gym user  Princess Diana talking to young boy   

Princess of Wales talking to a family   Princess of Wales at Aspire   Princess of Wales in the gym

The building was named the Mike Heaffey Centre, after the chairman-elect of the Allied Dunbar Foundation who had lived in the Stanmore area and had died tragically in 1984. Allied Dunbar was the major funder of the building which included an integrated gym, a computer training room, a drama room and a full-size sports hall, complete with wheelchair accessible balcony.

                 Mike Heaffey            Mike Heaffey Centre plaque

                           Mike Heaffey

The new building was so successful in its aims that in 1998 Aspire raised a further £5 million from the Allied Dunbar Foundation, as well as the Sports Lottery and the Arts Lottery, to double the size of the centre with a major extension. Designed by Sir Norman Foster, the Aspire National Training Centre included a wheelchair accessible swimming pool, dance studio, café and training suite.

Aspire Leisure Centre under construction   Aspire

It was opened by HRH the Duke of York, who was shown around the building by Aspire’s vice-president, Margaret (Lady) Tebbit. Lady Tebbit had sustained a spinal cord injury in the IRA bombing of the 1984 Conservative Party conference, which she had been attending with her politician husband, Norman (Lord) Tebbit.

  Duke of York learning about assistive technology

In 1996 Aspire reached another landmark when it raised an endowment of £1.5 million to support a Professorial Chair in Disability and Technology at University College, London.

For Aspire’s first ten years, the charity was run by the remarkable Shannie Ross who was awarded the MBE in recognition of her extraordinary achievements. However, it was her successor Martina Milburn, later Chief Executive of the Prince’s Trust, who successfully brought in the Aspire National Training Centre on time and on budget.

Duke of York, Peter Stanford and Martina Milburn

Duke of York, Peter Stanford and Martina Milburn

As the charity has grown and developed, trustees have included the acclaimed dancer, Celeste Dandeker OBE, who sustained a spinal cord injury while performing with London Contemporary Dance and went on to found the integrated dance company CandoCo. The theatrical impresario, Bill Freedman, and Nancy Robertson MBE, disability adviser to HRH The Prince of Wales have also been Aspire trustees.

Celeste Dandeker-Arnold OBE (left), Nancy Robertson MBE (right)

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