Aspire was founded in 1982 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. State-of-the-art medical treatment on the unit, he told her, was being compromised by inadequate rehabilitation facilities. The gathering – which included businessman, Ben Freedman, and Spinal Unit medical director, Ian Bayley – decided to set up Aspire to raise funds to improve those rehabilitation facilities. But the vision quickly grew. Instead of just purchasing equipment, Bayley suggested, Aspire might build a whole new rehabilitation unit next to the spinal unit.  And 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.  The £2 million facility was opened in 1991 by HRH the Princess of Wales, who became Aspire’s royal patron and visited the facilities on many occasions.  It 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.

The new building was so successful in its aims that in 1998 Aspire raised a further £5 million – again from the Allied Dunbar Foundation, as well as the Sports Lottery and the Arts Lottery – to double it in size with a major extension, designed by Sir Norman Foster, with swimming pool, dance studio, café and training suite.  It was named the Aspire National Training Centre and opened by HRH the Duke of York. He was shown round the building by Aspire’s vice-president, Margaret (Lady) Tebbit who 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.  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 and animated by the remarkable Shannie Ross who was awarded the MBE in recognition of her extraordinary achievements. 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.  Among trustees of the charity as it has grown and developed have been 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.

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