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Breakdance class is one way image of disabled is being changed

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MONTREAL - Luca Patuelli's students form a semi-circle in the classroom at Joseph-Charbonneau secondary school, most of them leaning on crutches or sitting in wheelchairs. Patuelli pulls himself into the group supported by a pair of crutches.

Then the music starts and the room is an explosion of movement.

Patuelli, known worldwide as Bboy Lazylegz, launches into a series of dynamic breakdance steps, at one point flinging his crutches aside. His charges rock along on the sidelines until one by one he turns the floor over to them and they step up to execute their own intricate moves.

Their heads rock with streetwise hip-hop breakdancer attitude. They gyrate. One spins and does a move where he lifts himself up on his hands and supports himself in the air, looking like Superman in flight.

The lunch hour activity at the school and readaptation centre puts a whole new slant on independent living for the disabled, an issue growing in Canada for the last quarter-century.

"What's been amazing about this program is it started off as a breakdancing class and now we've realized it's more like a life confidence-building class," Patuelli said in an interview before getting things underway, marvelling at the improvement he's seen since he started the class in November 2008.

"I have stories about some students who are literally getting out of their wheelchairs to dance and they're learning to walk. Other dancers are becoming a lot more independent."

Patuelli, who suffers from a rare bone and joint disorder known as arthrogryposis, has been a dancer for about 10 years now, since he was 15. He's been a professional breakdancer for about seven years.

He's been on crutches since he was three, was diagnosed with severe scoliosis when he was eight and has had 16 surgeries, including one where eight of his vertebrae were fused and titanium rods were inserted.

But Patuelli has developed an international following, performing, most recently in Paris, and was one of the acts in the opening ceremonies for the 2010 Paralympic Games. As part of the Canadian breakdance crew Illmatic Styles, he was featured on NBC's "America's Got Talent," and in 2007, he formed ILL-Abilities, an international group with disabled breakdancers from Canada, the U.S., Chile and Holland.

Patuelli has also been featured on a host of TV shows, including NBC's "Today Show" and "So You Think You Can Dance Canada."

"The idea is to really help these students be able to become more independent and not to rely on other people to help them," Patuelli said of the class. "If they want to do something, they can do it themselves. Yes, assistance is there to help you, but you have to go out and get it."

Deborah Kennard, the chairperson of Independent Living Montreal, knew Patuelli through the positive message he sends with his performing and motivational speaking. She called his class "wonderful" when she heard about it.

Kennard was born with spinal muscle atrophy and gets around in a semi-reclined wheelchair. Her organization, which is part of the Independent Living Canada network, works to provide resources and information to the disabled to help them overcome society's obstacles.

"We help people acquire skills and we try and set up resources that are lacking," she said.

"We just need to have the same opportunities as everyone else," she said. "Often it can be attitudes or stares or all kinds of barriers — economic, political, architectural and attitudinal — that get in the way. Once those are diminished, then people have lived much more productive and fulfilling lives."

Kennard noted that Independent Living has an employment program to help people find jobs and this year will be promoting people with disabilities directly to perspective employers. It has also held workshops on nutrition, self-esteem and living with a chronic disability.

About 22 students come to Patuelli's twice-weekly classes on their lunch break. They have a variety of mobility and cognitive challenges. One, who was left in a burning house as an infant, has stubs for legs and fingers.

Not that that stops him from turning in a jaw-dropping performance when he takes the floor. At one point, he suspends himself in the air and looks as if he's doing pushups in time to the throbbing music.

Patuelli points out that breakdancing is an extremely active dance where every muscle is used.

"When I started to teach the class I was trying to teach them all basic dance moves and then I realized they were having a bit of difficulty," said Patuelli, who was born in Montreal but grew up in Washington, D.C. "So I asked everyone to show me what moves they can do and then from there we'll adapt and we'll add to that movement."

He pointed to one student he identified by his breakdancer name, Crazymouth.

"He drives the wheelchair with his chin. He has extremely limited motion in his arms and his legs so he has to do everything with his head. When you watch him dance, when he's really feeling it, you don't even notice that he can't move his body. You really see it in his expressions and the joy in his face.

"It's just incredible to watch that he's been able to create movements just with the little movements that he can do. That's the message that I want the kids to learn — that the littlest movement makes the biggest difference."

Both Patuelli and Kennard agreed the image of the disabled is changing, although it's happening slowly.

Kennard said Canada is ahead of many places and one of the most accessible places in the country is Vancouver. It had a disabled mayor in Sam Sullivan, who became something of a celebrity when he accepted the Olympic flag in Turin in 2006 ahead of the 2010 Vancouver Games. She added there are two handicapped members of Parliament, Conservative MP Steven Fletcher and the NDP's Manon Perreault.

"It's all related to political will and perspective on how people with disabilities fit into our society," Kennard said of potential changes.

Kennard said Canada could use powerful legislation like the laws in force in the United States and that access to buildings and public transportation is still an issue.

She pointed out that employment is still a big problem and many disabled people live below the poverty line.

"We are constantly battling the medical model, that we need to be fixed or there's something wrong with us," said Kennard, adding that lowers self-esteem.

"What we try to do through our resources is to help them feel empowered, to see themselves as a whole."

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