Practical ways to include disabled people in martial arts training

Hello again Karate Kickin Dwarf readers. Here is the second article from Kai Morgans on the practical ways to include disabled people in martial arts training. Kai Morgan normally focuses on women’s issues in martial arts. I hope you all have enjoy her insights as much as I have.

I recently attended an excellent workshop 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.

In consultation with Larry, here are some thoughts and ideas about how the course material applies to the martial arts in particular. Part One of this post was about how teaching or training alongside students with disabilities can enhance your own practice. This second post looks at some practical ways you can modify activities to include people with disabilities.

The heart of the workshop was an in-depth discussion on Stevenson and Black’s Inclusion Spectrum (2007). This divides activities into five main types:

1. Open activities – A simple activity based on what the entire group can do with little or no modification

The warm-up and cool-down may fall into this category. Participants with a disability or other limitations are supported to change some exercises as needed, but otherwise they just join in with the rest of the class.

Activities such as practising drills as a class can also fall into this category. This can also be combined with some time spent in one of the other types of activity, to give the person more intensive support as needed.

2. Modified activities – Everyone does the same activity with adaptations to challenge the more able and support the inclusion of everyone
Firstly, bear in mind that your first response doesn’t always have to be to modify techniques and other movements. Often, the real barriers for students with disabilities can be more about lack of confidence; or things like spatial awareness or lack of balance.

Remember too that people with disabilities generally participate in sports less than non-disabled people, so they may have a general level of inexperience and/or lack of fitness. So a lot of your coaching and support may focus on supporting with these aspects.

However, there will be times when modifying a technique is appropriate and helpful, to make it more accessible for the student. For example, if someone doesn’t have the physical strength to handle a full-size weapon comfortably, you could use modified training weapons, such as a smaller or lighter (e.g. junior size) version.

You can also modify a technique, by splitting it into its component parts, and letting the student just focus on some parts of it. For example, someone might have a physical impairment which prevents them taking someone to the ground (or being taken to the ground) at the end of the technique. Or someone with a learning disability might find the full technique over-complex, but be fine to just practise a part of it.

And you can make it clear that it’s fine for students to practise the techniques slowly, if they are less flexible, or find it hard to grasp what to do.

3. Parallel activities – Participants are grouped according to ability – each doing the same activity, but at appropriate levels

In this case, a disabled student could be paired with a senior student to work on the given technique at their own level. Terry Taylor gives some excellent examples of how this might be done for students with different types of disability. He recommends involving students themselves in finding solutions to barriers, as they tend to be the “expert” on what works for them:

  • For people with a visual impairment, try being very descriptive about how the technique is executed, supported by hands-on correction if they are comfortable with this
  • One blind student wasn’t able to grasp the three-quarter turn in Kihon Kata. So Terry and the student worked together and realised that if they split it into three one-quarter turns, it made more sense to the student.
  • For people who use wheelchairs, the chair replaces certain aspects of what the legs would normally perform. So again, using kihon kata as an example, the chair will turn left or right according to the direction in which the techniques are being executed. For the middle portion the wheelchair is ‘freewheeled’ forward whilst three oizuki chudan’s are performed.
  • For a deaf student who uses lip-reading, be prepared to repeat instructions several times if needed; and always face them directly when speaking to them, and double-check their understanding.
  • Similarly, students with learning difficulties may need a technique explained and repeated many times; and may need more correction, and longer to learn it.

4. Separate activities – An individual or group does a purposefully planned different activity

In this case, you or someone else would work specifically with the student, on some aspect of training which they find challenging, or need to strengthen. Stefan Verstappen has written up a fascinating, detailed case study of his 1:1 work with a woman (Alice) who went blind in later life. This included:

  • Fitness training, as Alice was very unfit when she first joined the dojo.
  • Developing Alice’s ability to “see” the attacker, for example learning to be able to tell which hand someone used to grab her; and where and how they were standing in relation to her
  • Learning to use her white cane as a weapon, whether in response to someone trying to take it from her, or against a direct attack to her body
  • Learning to defend herself from grappling attacks

Above all, Stefan did some crucial, intensive work on helping Alice learn how to balance, which was causing her a crippling lack of confidence in everyday life. As he explains in the case study:

The key to Alice’s lack of balance was that she had lost her sight later in life; her nervous system had already been programmed to rely on visual information for balance. When Alice lost her vision a large part of her ability to feel balanced was also lost […] Alice believed that her lack of balance was just another ability lost with her vision. She was surprised and encouraged to learn that there is absolutely no reason she couldn’t learn to be more steady and solid on her feet. The knowledge that she could greatly improved her ability to learn the drills.

5. Disability Sport activities (“Reverse integration”)

This means that non-disabled participants participate with modifications, to meet the needs and abilities of the disabled players in the group. Reverse integration can provide enjoyable challenges for non-disabled students, and also increase their sensitivity and positive attitude towards disability.

It can also be great for the self-esteem of disabled participants, as they may even have an advantage over their peers (for example, wheelchair sports can be really difficult for those not used to using a wheelchair).

An obvious example in the martial arts would be practising techniques with a blindfold or eyes closed. You could also try practising freestyle from holds and grabs.

I don’t believe this could work for sparring that involves kicking or punching (although would love to hear any differently!), but Judo for the visually impaired is a recognised Paralympic sport. Paralympic Judo for the visually impaired follows the same rules as Olympic judo, except the judoka start in a gripped stance.

And Kelly Baggett argues that training without vision is an excellent was to develop proprioceptive efficiency (our sense of position and movement – often described as our sixth sense). She cites research that has found that exercises are performed with greater precision and stability when the eyes are closed or in darkness.

Lori O’Connell has also written an interesting article on this subject.

And the possibilities are endless. Try adapting an activity in the light of your student’s specific needs – or just explore and experiment with disability sport activities for the sake of learning. Examples might include:

    • Practise from seiza (both of you kneeling), or hanmi handachi (one person kneeling and one standing), to experiment with different height and balance. NB this is supposed to be great for strengthening the legs and hips!
    • Watch this intriguing video: Fighting with one arm and try out some of the techniques:

  • IF grappling is your thing, you have to watch: The Gracie Way (Episode 16): NO EXCUSES Featuring Kyle Maynard. Kyle has arms that end at the elbows and legs near the knees – but that doesn’t seem to get in his way!


This is only a really brief dip into a very vast, complex and fascinating subject. If you have any further ideas, Larry is keen to build his site into a repository of good practice, so please feel very free to share your thoughts, and examples of “what works” in your own dojo . . .

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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