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
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
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
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
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
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 with permission
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.
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