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 Arts?

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 several years!

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.

It 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.

That 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.