- A 2012 shooting left Wesley Hamilton paralyzed from the waist down.
- As he healed over the following years, Hamilton said, the incident ultimately proved liberating.
- He founded Disabled but Not Really to help people with disabilities take control of their lives.
In January 2012, just days after his 24th birthday, Wesley Hamilton thought he was going to die.
Leaving an apartment complex where he’d spent 30 minutes in a heated argument with an ex-girlfriend, Hamilton made his way to his car when a man shot him, with one bullet going through his chest and fracturing a rib and another tearing through his abdomen, leaving him with a spinal-cord injury that paralyzed him from the waist down.
Hamilton — who had grown up as a self-described “bad boy” in Kansas City, Missouri — thought he’d never make it past 21 anyway.
But, as Hamilton told Insider, the moment ultimately proved liberating.
“I went through a lot of trials and tribulations when it comes to acceptance as well as just trying to navigate this new way of life,” Hamilton said. “I didn’t see the light in that until about the year 2015, and at that time what I did was transform my life completely in a physical manner.”
Hamilton was bedridden for a year as he recovered from the shooting, which caused him to develop an ulcer on his tailbone that required six surgeries. It took another two years of bed rest to recover from the procedures.
He was already overweight before the shooting, weighing 230 pounds at just 5-foot-4, but, depressed with his current state, he resolved to change his circumstances. While on bed rest, he took nutrition courses at a community college and put what he learned into action.
“I lost a hundred pounds while I had limitations,” he said, adding that he had no formal guidance on how to work out while in a wheelchair.
He told Insider his effort to get in shape after the shooting gave him ownership over not only his health but also his life.
Hamilton, whose story was highlighted on season four of “Queer Eye” in 2019, told Insider that while he was growing up his only role models were drug dealers.
“The mindset was live and die, ’cause you’re going to probably be dead or in jail by 21 anyway,” he said. “So, the mindset was negative. It was full of hate, rage, lack of self-love, and I didn’t like nobody. When you would see a picture of me, it was always me flipping the camera off.”
A physical limitation gave Hamilton mental freedom
Before the shooting, Hamilton had just gotten sole custody of his daughter, who was then 2 years old. He said as a single dad he was working full time to support her even though he hadn’t fully let go of the street life. But that changed after the shooting. He came to view himself as capable of far more and began to overhaul his lifestyle.
“I couldn’t find any joy in this with limitations because I was worried about what people saw, but when I lost that weight, I did something I couldn’t do walking, which gave me power because I was defeated mentally,” he said.
Hamilton began competing in adaptive athletic events and became a certified adaptive CrossFit instructor. Adaptive fitness is exercise or personal training tailored to meet the needs of someone with a disability, such as weight lifting for those in wheelchairs.
As he got more into his own fitness journey over the next two years, Hamilton realized he wanted to help others with disabilities take ownership of their health, so he created Disabled but Not Really, a nonprofit that runs adaptive exercise programs to serve people who want to get in shape but may be unable to use a standard gym.
In 2017, Hamilton learned about creating a business plan at his local community college, and by the following year Disabled but Not Really was offering eight-week training programs three times a year in Kansas City. The nonprofit works with clients to tailor exercises to their physical capabilities.
Initially, the nonprofit partnered with local facilities to run the program, but as the coronavirus pandemic hit, Hamilton turned his own garage in Kansas City into a gym that was designed so people with various abilities could work alongside one another.
“The bigger vision is to create something that’s very diverse and inclusive,” he said. “Like, I should be able to work out next to my mom. You know, I can be on a wheelchair treadmill and she’s on a regular treadmill.”
Hamilton’s program gained credibility after it was featured in magazines like Men’s Health.
“Nobody gave me anything,” he said. “It was all built on passion. I just knew that this whole journey that I’ve been going through, there are so many people that can be guided this way.”
‘People don’t know the journey — they don’t know the battles’
Hamilton said his motivation was about empowerment.
“I didn’t go on those fitness competitions thinking, ‘Oh, man, I want to be in Men’s Health.’ No, I was going out there like, ‘I ain’t never lifted a weight in my life, and I’m on this stage. This is me,'” he said.
“People don’t know the journey,” he added. “They don’t know the battles. They don’t know the acceptance of being overweight for 24 years of my life and not thinking that I could be in shape. It wasn’t just about showing, ‘Oh, I’m in a wheelchair and I can lift.'”
It also was about being the representation that he didn’t get to see growing up. “I represent two communities that I love outside of anything else,” he said. “Black and disabled.”
‘The man who tried to take my life, gave me life’
On “Queer Eye,” Hamilton had the chance to confront and speak with the man who shot him.
While Hamilton said he questioned why it happened, he told Insider he forgave the man and said his own decisions also played a role.
“At the beginning, I couldn’t take ownership — I couldn’t take ownership over the truth of that story,” he said, referring to his lifestyle at the time.
He added that throughout his transformation, he had time to “patch up wounds” that nobody else could. That process taught him to be grateful, which changed his perspective. As an affirmation, he’d often tell himself “the man who tried to take my life gave me life.”
He said that after growing up surrounded by the expectation that pain demands retaliation, he could tell a weight was lifted off of the gunman’s shoulders upon realizing he wasn’t out for revenge.
Hamilton told Insider he forgave the man on the day he found out he lost 100 pounds. “We can’t choose what happened to us by someone else sometimes,” he said. “We only can choose how we react.”