How teaching disabled students can enrich your own martial arts

Hello Karate Kickin Dwarf readers. I recently had a wonderful opportunity present itself to me. This week I am not writing the article. I am featuring a guest writer and martial artist – Kai Morgan. Kai Morgan normally focuses on women’s issues in martial arts. She recently had an opportunity to attend a course on coaching people with disabilities. She wanted to reach out to the people that follow Karate Kickin Dwarf and share the knowledge she gained. The article provides an insight on how to teach disabled students in martial arts. This article gave me a better insight on train with me and how I can improve their training experience.

Wheelchair fencing
© Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 3.0

I recently attended an excellent course called, “How to Coach Disabled People in Sport”, run by Sports Coach UK. You can read my write-up of the event here: 10 Tips for Coaching Disabled People in Sport.

The course placed a heavy emphasis on how being inclusive is good for all of us – and this really got me thinking. It’s wonderful to help other people – but could being inclusive also end up helping us all ourselves too, as students and instructors?

I believe the answer is yes – and here are some reasons why . . .

1. It helps us to take a more open-minded view of what disability actually is

The course spent some time exploring the “medical model” of disability versus the “social model”. The medical model is all about labels and impairments and people having problems. So it categorises people as being blind; or having epilepsy; or being unable to walk, and sees this as the reason they can’t do things.

The social model however challenges this view and makes us question what disability really is. So if someone is in a wheelchair and they can’t get into the dojo due to lack of access, then they are disabled. Or if a person who lip-reads can’t see the sensei speak, due to their standing in direct sunlight, they are disabled.

But who or what has caused this disability? It isn’t necessarily the disabled person themselves, or their impairment. Uncomfortably, the responsibility may rest with society, and ourselves as individuals.

IMAG0644Bringing it closer to home – It might appear that Larry is “disabled” in the dojo, due to his short stature. But if you train with kids in your class – they are short too and we don’t think anything of it! We just adjust the technique as needed, without even thinking.

Because in our minds, children are supposed to be short but adults are not supposed to be short. But if we can move beyond these assumptions, we start to see that it shouldn’t really matter . . .

The social model therefore gives us a huge amount of power to question our own assumptions, and challenge society’s views on what disability actually is. And it also gives us the power to resolve that someone in our class is NOT going to be disabled – and work to remove the barriers that could stand in their way . . .

2. It brings us in touch with our own limitations
Good martial arts clubs tend to promote a thoughtful and nuanced approach about training through injury and other impairments. Here’s an extract from an email my own sensei sent me last year when I was thinking of staying away from class for a bit with an injured elbow:

Hopefully it will feel better. Try to keep it moving using slow movements. Go through the sword and jo but at half or quarter speed. And you can still train. I find weapons allow you to extend a stretch beyond the norm in a controlled way. I can show you Thursday. Usually I tell students to train with the injury as it forces them to change how they would react and limits.

It is a difficult one as on the one side only when injured can we reflect on our weaknesses and understand the limitations we may face. On the other hand from an insurance standpoint I should be saying don’t train 🙂

It is a case of risk acceptance and finding your own limitations.

By Joey Leonardo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Joey Leonardo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In the end, we all have impairments. Older people often can’t kick as high as younger people. Some people find joint locks more painful, due to stiff joints. Some people have emotional barriers or scars, which can make it harder for them to train than others.

99% of us have one dominant side to our body (left or right); and this is definitely an impairment in martial arts training, compared with truly ambidextrous people. We just don’t treat it as a disability, because it’s so common.

Martial arts training is all about clearly understanding our limitations and working to overcome them. Or if they’re insurmountable, working through or around them to become the best we can.

3. It can inspire us to explore training with other limitations
The tutor on this course talked about running Disability Sport activities or “reverse integration”. This means that non-disabled participants participate with modifications, to meet the needs and abilities of the disabled players in the group.

An iconic example of this can be seen in the inspirational Guinness advert, where you see a group of men playing wheelchair basketball. When the game finishes, all but one of them get out of the wheelchairs and the group walks away together, showing that they have been playing an adapted game for the sake of including their friend.

On the surface, this might just look like being “nice” and inclusive towards the disabled person. But actually there’s more to it. The course tutor said that wheelchair sports can be actually incredibly difficult for able-bodied people, who aren’t used to handling the chair, let alone competing in a sport at the same time.

So how about adding in a new challenge to your training – either to accommodate a disabled student, or just for the sake of challenge in itself. For example, students in Larry’s dojo – or any dojo – could try practising techniques from seiza (kneeling) to bring their height down. Here’s an example:

The trainer also said that people in general can tend to be quite “lazy”, in that they rely so heavily on one sense – sight. So training blindfolded can be a very useful exercise, for developing focus, sensitivity and awareness.

On a darker note, if our training is preparing us for real-life violence, we need to consider and prepare for the possibility of sustaining severe possible injury. Rory Miller writes in Meditations on Violence: You must get used to working from a position of disavantage. Put yourself and your students in the worst positions you can (face down, under a bench, blindfolded to simulate blood in the eyes, and with an arm tied in their belt) and start the training from there. (page 117)

4. It helps us to become better instructors and practitioners
All sports coaching is about sensitivity and adaptability; and perhaps the martial arts more so than many other activities. Working on the principle that all students are instructors in development, the opportunity to train with a disabled person can provide a really valuable opportunity to adapt your practice and find alternative ways of achieving the same outcome.

And it’s not just about the physical and technical side of teaching. Wendy Dragonfire writes, 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.

So when training with people with disabilities, a lot of your work and the support you give may be in this area.

And there’s more! In our pursuit of our chosen martial art(s), most of us would agree that learning and practising humility is absolutely essential. And training with people who have disabilities can help us do this in two ways.

Firstly, it should remind us of our own physical and mental vulnerability. We are all getting older, and in any case, could be struck by illness or accident any time. No one is immune to disability, and arguably everyone is disabled at one time or another in their life.

Secondly it can teach us inspirational lessons about human resilience and ability to overcome barriers. Training alongside someone who has overcome major challenges just to be there can be pretty humbling. This is true whether the barriers are due to disability, illness, emotional damage, or challenging life circumstances.

And talking of inspiration, here are two very different videos to end with.


Look out for Part Two of this post which will focus on some practical ways you can modify activities to include people with disabilities . . .

Kai Morgan is a martial arts blogger with a special focus on women’s participation in and experience of the martial arts. Check out her blog and download her free e-book on how to attract and retain more female students in your dojo.

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