Martial Arts For People With Disabilities: An Ongoing Perspective

Please allow me to introduce myself first. I’m Terry Taylor, a Shotokan karate instructor with a second dan based in Kent’s Medway Towns. Coaching and developing martial arts specifically for people with disabilities has been my specialty. And here’s where we’ve gotten so far.


In 1991, two months after achieving shodan, I founded my own dojo (which is still going strong). This was something I’d been wanting to do for quite some time. This motivation was bolstered by the fact that the instructor who had given me my first karate session also coached at his brother’s dojo and had recently opened his own. It’s been a great honour and joy.

I knew I wanted to coach people with disabilities even before I got my shodan. When I took on a group of visually impaired students in 1992, that happened. I now consider several of them to be among my closest personal friends.

In 1999 I attained Nidan.

With the passage of time, the Club’s activities have somewhat diversified. For, sadly, even in this day and age it is not always easy for someone with a disability to find an instructor who is willing to coach him/her. Thus in the past couple of years, I have also set up long-distance training sessions.

From both the student and instructor perspective this has been far from ideal but, so far, it honestly has worked. Also, by necessity, the sessions are longer. The aim of them is to give those who attend a much higher level of attention. Thus these sessions are typically fairly small. In one student’s case as you will see below this is because he has very specific communications needs. Thus, a small group is very appropriate for him.

So please allow me to introduce you to J. He is both deaf and blind (deafblind being the correct term). He was born blind but with some very limited tunnel vision (literally a few inches in front of his nose). At age five, he also lost all of his hearing through fever (therefore described as profoundly deaf). He is not the first deafblind student I have ever taught. Some years ago I coached a couple of young people who were also legally classified as deafblind but who both had speech and some degree of hearing. Thus communication with them was not an issue for me in my capacity as their instructor. However, J is the first one where I have had to totally adapt my communication methods i.e. away from the speech. Instead, I use a combination of Block Alphabet (signing in block capitals on his hand) as well as large print on his laptop.

J is a very bright individual. He holds a degree and has a full-time job working in the stockbroking division of a major bank. What makes it a lot easier for me is he also has a truly wicked sense of humour.

His achievements thus far have been truly excellent. For in the thirteen months to June this year he has gained five awards/trophies, something that none of my students, both past and present and both able-bodied and disabled has never achieved previously.

He began his training in early 2003. Two of his most recent awards came from him being placed second in adult kata in an open competition. This was his first attempt at an external event with able-bodied entrants alongside him. Right at the end of the tournament, he was also picked out for a merit award for the best adult male competitor of the day. Although J was unable to hear it there was plenty of applause for him as he went up on stage to receive this.

You may therefore also be surprised to learn that J has achieved this based on just one lesson a month. For he travels some 200 or so miles to come to train, hence why I run a much longer lesson for him and anyone else who wishes to join in. This is also the reason why, in July, he only just graded for the seventh kyu, successfully too.

J trains in between lessons on his own, which is why I said earlier this is not an ideal arrangement. Clearly, however, he is self-motivated. In between sessions I provide support to him, principally via e-mail. To use his own words, he is not a quitter and notwithstanding the added difficulties he also has with balance (and because of this, kicks), almost definitely the result of his dual sensory loss (including possible damage done to the balance organ in his ear, the organ of Corti), I hope to continue training him in the way we have developed together since 2003.

In terms of students with other disabilities during my regular weekly sessions, most have typically been those with sensory (sight and/or hearing) loss. However, I have had the pleasure of coaching those with a learning disability, the occasional wheelchair user, a couple of students with hemiplegia and a couple of young people with ADHD. A number of those who I used to teach at my earlier-mentioned second dojo of visually impaired students also had other disabilities (the technical term is multiplied disabled or a person with multiple complex needs).

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With all of my students who have disabilities, it has very much been a case of only adapting occasionally. If you look at the main article on my website (14 pages in print!) there is a section on coaching techniques in the appendices which may well help those of you contemplating or already working in this specialist area. As I indicated it has occasionally been the student who has suggested adaptations. As instructors, we should not be averse to this either for, in a sense, it is we who are the students too as we learn to coach/adapt if necessary some of the techniques/skill areas we are expected to go through with all of our students whether they be disabled or not. For example, in this instructor’s case, trying to explain to a totally blind student about hip power has proved to be quite difficult. This is also true in J’s case. For, even with the benefit of the limited vision, he does have, this is something we continue to work on together.

And from this instructor’s perspective whilst I do allow for a person’s disability[ies], in a sense I don’t. Basically, I will be looking to each of my students to produce a good standard of karate (or preferably better than just ‘good’), regardless of whether they have a disability or not. Further, I will only adopt or totally remove a technique from their training if it becomes obvious that this is absolutely necessary. This is not a case of my being hard on them. For just because they have [a] disability[ies] there is no reason why, as instructors, we should accept a different standard. For all I ask of all of my students, disabled or not, is that they perform to the best of their ability and that they put plenty of effort into their training.

An example of this took place at our 2001 Festival (which I discuss later on in this article). We were witness to some truly excellent demo’s from some students with learning disabilities. Their instructor had clearly drilled them well for this. Curiously I had a teacher who taught pupils with special needs come up and say to me: They really can do martial arts to which I replied: Of course they can. This provides us with an excellent example of how to contradict the stereotypical image of a disabled person i.e. that we should expect less of them. Not so. Also, increasingly on the Internet there are other outstanding examples of students with disabilities training and competing at very high levels indeed.

We, therefore, need to remember and understand that a person’s disability is just one part of their being, not the whole. As one of my former chief instructors said to me when any of his students come to train they, in a sense, are also disabled as until they have learned a given technique/concept/kata/whatever they to are disabled. It is up to us as instructors to therefore pass on that knowledge as it is our students, again disabled or not, who are the future of our chosen martial art.

For, one of the pleasures of working within disability martial arts has been to meet/exchange views with an ever-increasing number of fellow instructors who themselves either have [a] disability[ies] or who regularly coach within this specialist area, not only here in the UK but internationally too. I see this as being vital for the development of disability martial arts anywhere as, again, I continue to meet up with instructors who are open-minded and willing to learn along the way. And, again, this is how it should be regardless of dan grade.

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Basically, I set up this Festival Programme originally as a county-only event. Within twelve months it grew to the regional level. Likewise, there has been an increasing level of interest from both instructors as well as prospective new students. Sadly in the case of the former despite kind offers to coach for me I am now sadly having to turn instructors away. This is due to the fact that in some martial art styles I will have achieved my full quota of instructors and assistants.

I am not happy about this but equally, I am extremely pleased that there is now so much interest in coaching/learning to tutor people with a wide variety of disabilities. I try to lay on as many martial arts as I can as attendance is now not only coming from other regions of the UK but from overseas too. It is now therefore right for this to be extended countrywide. In short, this is a truly excellent event, not because I say so but because others do. Again, please look at the feedback just from 2004 on our website.

The Development Programme that has come from (a) literally nothing and has been reliant on an absolute ton of goodwill and kindness on the part of others and (b) from something where I hoped to personally recruit new students with disabilities to my own dojo has grown organically. Again, there is plenty of information on my website, but basically, I inaugurated this Programme as a coordinated way of providing a platform for this client group to come along to a taster day specifically in martial arts so that they could then join a local club near to where they live.

And this has worked. But the organic element of the Programme has been where it has had added benefits.

As I have just said, Festival Days are basically run on a lot of goodwill and kindness e.g. from fellow instructors who are keen to come along to coach this client group. Some already have the range of skills of working with people with a wide range of disabilities, both physical and intellectual (sometimes both), whilst others do not.

At each Festival I have tried to add a new dimension. And so, whilst those who attend have gone away smiling from ear to ear after having had a really good day, what it has also provided (for the instructors and other volunteers alike) is an intensive experience of working at close quarters with this client group – if you like, a form of disability awareness training.

Also from it has come the ever-increasing network of instructors I referred to earlier who are keen to or who are already working in this specialist area of martial arts. Some of them also happen to have a disability and can therefore act as positive role models.

New for 2004 was a first-ever all-styles kata/forms competition. In reality, however, each student’s entry was based on whatever s/he could perform. So, for example, a number of them were from a dojo further west of me. All of them had severe learning difficulties. Thus, the rules for this part of the event were largely discarded. For these students, they performed a limited range of basic techniques (for what it is worth, I have also seen this work elsewhere).

I will be the first to acknowledge that this is a wide variant from the normal protocol for competition. However my argument in this debate has been, as instructors, are we teaching the student or the martial art? You may well say both. However, in teaching people with disabilities whilst earlier I have highlighted the need only to adapt if, as or when necessary, with those with this level of impairment it is clear there is a need to adopt the rule book to meet the student’s level of ability, ditto their training. In so doing we enable even those with the most significant disability[ies] to succeed at their own level. This is basically the same rule that we can apply for non-disabled people for not everyone in our dojo’s is a star’.

Festival 2004 was therefore the first-ever opportunity for those attending who were already practising martial artists to compete and succeed on their own terms just as it should be and hence my putting forward this debate about throwing out the rule book.

Written by Terry Taylor, Chairman of Breaking Down Barriers/The UK Martial Arts Festival for People with Disabilities

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© Disability Media and Martial Arts 2005. All rights reserved

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