Teaching Martial Arts To Differently Abled People
By Wendi Dragonfire, Renshi, Shuri-Ryu Karate-Do
The questions most asked of people who teach Martial Arts to people
with different abilities are: How can people with physical limitations,
such as loss of their legs, an arm, or with limited muscle control, practice
the Martial Arts? What has to be taught differently? Is it still Martial
Martial Arts are based on very specific, logical principles. When you
understand the principles of a particular martial art, such as karate,
judo or aikido, then you can teach that art to others regardless of a
student's ability or disability. Thus, in principle, teaching people with
disabilities is no different from teaching anyone else. You just have
to be a little more creative.
If a student is unable to kick, then a replacement technique that does
approximately the same thing can usually be found. For example, a front
kick can be replaced by a straight punch, a roundhouse kick by a roundhouse
punch, a back kick by a hammerfist and so on. For people who cannot use
their arms, the reverse is true. People who are paralyzed on one side
need to be given one sided alternatives, keeping in mind balance problems
that may also be present. And, if there are motor control problems techniques
can be modified.
The biggest adjustment and challenges don't lie with the physical aspects
of training; they come from overcoming students' insecurities and learned
behaviors. The same is true for students without disabilities.
Teaching someone who was athletic all of his or her life but, through
an accident, had a limb amputated is different from teaching someone who
was born with a disability. Someone born with a disability who has been
integrated into society is different from someone who has been institutionalized.
This is also true of teaching able bodied students. One who was abused
as a child will have different needs than someone who had a happy and
nurturing childhood. Men have different needs than women in many cases...but
everyone can learn Martial Arts with the same high standards.
I have a student, Lydia Zijdel, who is in a wheel chair. When Lydia started
training with me (1985) she was concerned that because of her disability
she would hold the other students back. Lydia is one of the most motivated
and dedicated students I have ever taught. My answer to her was that I
was waiting for the rest of the group to catch up to her...it took them
To my knowledge, Lydia was the first Dutch person, who is disabled, to
earn her Black Belt. She has been teaching both the disabled and people
who want to teach the disabled for many years and is probably one of the
foremost authorities on this subject in the world today. But in the same
way that not all able bodied practitioners achieve the same success, not
every disabled person can or wants to achieve what Lydia has achieved,
as Lydia herself has reminded me.
is becoming more and more acceptable for people with disabilities who
are able to control their muscle functions to train. But for people who
have compromised neurological or muscular control there remains the stigma
that they are unable to do "real" Martial Arts. This is nonsense.
In teaching the physically handicapped, the only real limits are imposed
by ignorance. But, unfortunately, many teachers are reluctant to take
on the teaching challenge and even if accepted, these students often find
it difficult to be recognized for the skill and knowledge they obtain.
Because they move differently, the beauty of their movement is often neglected.
Also, because of compromised neurological or muscular control it takes
extra effort for the teacher to find the right movements to go with the
student's physical abilities and limitations. But once the connection
is made, and one sees the spirit flowing, along with those beautiful movements,
one realizes that it is in fact true that Martial Arts is for just about
everyone. It only takes the desire to learn and a willing teacher.
is why when approaching teaching, regardless of who one wishes to teach,
one must know his or her own limits as a teacher, and above all, understand
the principles underlying his or her own Martial Art. Once one understands
the principles, there is NO DIFFERENCE in teaching Martial Arts to different
types of students. Martial Arts is the study of Body-Mind-Spirit in equal
parts. What the body can't do, the spirit makes up for.
Do not accept less than the best from every single student. Whatever
one's best is, it should be given. Do not expect less and you will not
be forced to witness less.
In my more than 25 years of teaching Martial Arts, the one most glaring
truth that continues to exist is that all beginners have similar insecurities.
When one teaches integrated classes, all of the students learn from each
other. People who are disabled learn that their insecurities have more
to do with being a beginner than with being disabled, and the same is
true for the so-called able bodied students.
Know the principles of your martial art and be open to the needs of each
individual student. In this way, there is no need to teach differently
when teaching people with different abilities. Each student has individual
needs. Those needs are easily met once one understands the basic principles.
© 2000 by Wendi Dragonfire. Reprinted
About The Author:
Dragonfire is an internationally recognized teacher, trainer, consultant
and writer on the martial arts, karate, self-defense and women's issues.
She holds a 6th degree black belt in Shuri ryu karate and a 2nd degree
black belt in Modern Arnis. As a karate competitor she won several world
tournaments in 1973 and 1977, was a top ten rated competitor from 1971-1983
and was undefeated in over 100 tournaments in the early 1970's. She was
a founder of the Women's Self-Defense Anti Violence Against Women's Movement.
She developed self-defense and assertiveness programs taught in both the
US and Europe, and founded a Rape Crisis Center which she now runs. She
is a consultant to the Girl Scouts of America, several school districts
and security companies. Her articles regularly appear in a wide variety
of martial arts and related publications.