Like many kids his age, Paul Brailer wanted to be like Bruce Lee when he grew up — a badass who could kick, punch and fight his way out of any situation. But for Bralier, a wheelchair user born with spina bifida, the only kicking and flying through the air he was likely to do was in his dreams. It wasn’t until he was already in his 30s that a chance meeting with Heidi Rudibaugh, an instructor at The Art of Karate in Barberton, Ohio, changed his life. She invited him to come and try a class; today, he has a black belt in taekwondo and his own nonprofit, Criptaedo, which he created to teach people with disabilities self-defense.
Brailer, now 42, credits his study of taekwondo with improved fitness, self-esteem, and better public speaking and problem solving skills. “Studying martial arts helps people with disabilities learn they’re more capable than they think they are.”
And while karate and taekwondo have been very popular martial arts for wheelchair users, virtually any one of them can be adapted with a willing instructor and some creative problem solving. Today, you’ll find wheelers participating at all ends of the spectrum — from the meditative flow of tai chi to the full-on contact of mixed martial arts and everything in between.
The reasons for getting involved are equally varied. Some enjoy the fighting. Some want fitness and a good workout. And still others want to learn techniques they can use to defend themselves and keep safe.
Martial arts aren’t just for the boys, either. Just ask Michelle Colvard or Kelly Schultz.
Colvard, Miss Wheelchair America 2009, was born with spina bifida. She learned about martial arts in high school through a program on chung moo do, which encompasses a mix of eight different martial arts, including taekwondo, tai chi, aikido, karate, judo, jujitsu and weapons training.
She liked learning how she could defend herself. “My instructor figured out how I could use my wheelchair to my benefit if someone attacked me and even taught me what to do if I got pulled from my chair. It made me feel powerful!”
In addition to the physical benefits and stress release the training gave her, Colvard says her lung power greatly improved. “After all the breathing exercises we did, I could hold my breath for several minutes!”
Later on, she and her husband signed up for taekwondo lessons together. “One thing that really drew me to American Taekwondo Association,” she says, “was that they have a well-developed curriculum for a wheelchair user that is easily incorporated into a regular classroom, so my husband and I could exercise together. Having something we could do together was really important to me.”
Like Colvard, Kelly Schultz of Crystal Lake, Ill., was also born with spina bifida. She took up martial arts as a young girl and started practicing shotokan karate at the age of 11 after watching her older brother compete. Though she started in the special recreation class, she quickly progressed to the mainstream class and found her passion. Today, after nine years of consistent training, Schultz holds a first degree brown belt; and, in addition to her own training, she helps teach other young people — with and without disabilities.
Jim and Marianne O’Hara are the husband and wife team behind Focus Martial Arts where Schultz trains. Jim is a fifth degree black belt with 35 years of experience. Marianne is a second degree black belt and special ed teacher. They got involved in teaching students with disabilities through a chance meeting with someone at the Northern Illinois Special Recreation Association many years ago, and have incorporated students with disabilities into their program ever since.
Jim sits in a chair himself to figure out how to adapt the moves for Schultz. “For example, she can’t kick, so when she does her forms, we change the move to accommodate knee strikes or techniques to throw her opponent off balance.” Together they figure out ways she can use the chair in an attack or competition.
Says Marianne, “She’s stronger mentally, physically and spiritually as a result of her training. This change carries over into everything she does, from competition to work and social life.”
Varied Benefits of Martial Arts
Martial arts doesn’t just benefit kids, either. Marty Katz, 67, is a polio survivor from the age of 2. Like Brailer, she was inspired by Bruce Lee movies. But it wasn’t until she was long into adulthood that she found a class for students with disabilities at Family Karate in San Diego. “So at age 44, I walked into the studio and started my journey.”
Martial arts have helped Katz see the leg brace that enables her to walk as an advantage instead of a detriment. Though she hasn’t had to, “I’m fully confident that I could use my brace as a weapon.” In fact, she can break as many as three boards with a single kick.
Now a certified instructor, she has been teaching students with disabilities for more than 10 years. “Rather than see limitations and teach to that level, I try to challenge and allow the students to grow beyond any perceived limitations,” she says.
Moving beyond limitations is part of what has inspired Erik Kondo’s martial arts journey. Kondo, a T4-5 para from a 1984 motorcycle accident at age 19, lives with his wife and three children in Lexington, Mass. He is an entrepreneur and founder of the nonprofit Not-Me! and a principal in Conflict Research Group International.
Growing up with a Japanese father who practiced martial arts, Kondo learned both judo and jujitsu. Today, he holds a third degree black belt in Small Circle Jujitsu, which he was drawn to for its physicality. “Jujitsu involves close range fighting. As a wheelchair user, it is likely that in an intense physical conflict, I’d be knocked out of my chair, so I wanted to learn methods to deal with that.”
Like many wheelers drawn to the martial arts, Kondo has a keen interest in the self-defense aspects for people with disabilities. His book — Not Me! Self-Defense and the Martial Arts for and by People with SCI — was written to get the message out that self-defense isn’t just about being physical. It includes boundary setting, body language, assertive phrases and physical action. And, he says, these are all skills that martial arts practice can teach.
Martial arts can bring a lot of benefit to people with disabilities, he says. Joining a community, getting involved, the spiritual benefits, tradition, goal setting, problem solving. “To me, it’s the opportunity to explore yourself and what you can and can’t do.”
It was that exploration of movement, possibility and potential that led Zibin Guo, Ph.D., to create wheelchair tai chi. Guo, a professor of medical anthropology at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga, is a long time practitioner of tai chi, a slow, gentle and meditative martial art. A few months after he arrived in the United States from China, he was at the University of Connecticut, teaching martial arts and tai chi part time. He got a call from a man named Paul, who said he was blind and wanted a private lesson. Though Guo had never taught anyone who was blind, he went to Paul’s house to give him the lesson. There, he found the house in darkness. He asked Paul where the light switch was, to which Paul replied, “What do you need light for?”
“At that moment, the way I saw things changed. This really motivated me to understand perceptions and the way we rationalize what we think of as ability and disability,” says Guo.
Guo remembers reading an article that discussed how when people encounter a wheelchair user, they see the chair, not the person. “I started thinking in terms of Chinese medicine where we talk about elements and transforming from one to another, and wondering how we could transform this perception. And the idea for wheelchair tai chi came to me.”
Working with the local rehabilitation hospital, he developed a wheelchair tai chi program consisting of 13 movements instead of the traditional 26. “What is really important is the wheelchair is integral to the movement, kind of like ice skating,” says Guo. He took his idea to the Chinese Federation of Disabled People and the Beijing Paralympic Committee in 2005. They liked it so much, wheelchair tai chi was featured prior to the opening of the 2008 Paralympic Games. Today it is part of a Chinese public health initiative, practiced in every province in the country.
Growing in Popularity
Another visionary in the world of martial arts for people with disabilities is Brett Wolf, founder of Brett Wolf Judo. Though Wolf has been teaching judo for a long time, it is only in the last six years that he has added students with disabilities into his program. Through World Sport Chicago, the legacy organization of Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games, Wolf began teaching judo to children with disabilities in Chicago Public Schools. “We have students of all kinds. Some use wheelchairs, some don’t. What we want is for them to be kids and to be judo players — that’s our number one creed.”
Though the Menomonee Club, which houses Wolf’s judo program, received a designation as a National Paralympic Judo Training Site for athletes with visual disabilities, he remains committed to creating a fully inclusive environment at the dojo. He admits to some challenges, though. “For the visually impaired students, there’s a coaching curriculum and certification that USA Judo put together because it’s a Paralympic sport. For other students with disabilities, no one gave us any guidance, we had to learn on the fly.”
In spite of the challenges, Wolf says, “If an instructor is considering whether or not to add students with disabilities into their programs, do it. If you don’t give someone a chance, you’re the one who’s missing out.” In fact, he adds, “We have the most diverse group of students in the dojo I’ve ever seen, and this has improved every aspect of our program.”
Wolf recognizes the strong community partnerships that have been integral to their success. “We are working with a lot of great organizations to provide these kids opportunities — Chicago Public Schools, Chicago Park District, World Sport Chicago, Rehab Institute of Chicago, Variety of Illinois — these organizations have such a history with the disability community. We couldn’t do it without them.”
While judo for blind athletes has been the only martial art on the Paralympic program until now, that is about to change. Para-taekwondo has been added to the list of sports that will be included at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games for athletes across a wide range of disability categories.
So whether you want to participate at a local dojo or take your skill all the way to the world stage, martial arts offers something for everyone. If you’re still not convinced you should give martial arts a try, Colvard says, “It’s OK to shop around a bit until you find the studio that makes you feel most comfortable. If you don’t get a good vibe from an instructor, just go elsewhere.”
Kondo agrees. “Researching schools and talking to instructors is the best way to find out what works for you. The attitude of the instructor has a huge impact on the student’s experience.”
Katz, on the other hand, offers this practical, sage advice: “Stop thinking about it and just do it!”
For More Information:
• Criptaedo, 330/612-3215; firstname.lastname@example.org, www.criptaedo.com
• Family Karate, 858/484-4747; email@example.com, www.familykaratepq.com
• Brett Wolf Judo, 773/230-6070; BrettWolfJudo@gmail.com, www.brettwolfjudo.com
• Not-Me!, 781/643-1499; www.not-me.org
• Focus Martial Arts & Fitness, 847-458-0938; ContactFocusMA@gmail.com, www.focusma.com
• Para-taekwondo, World Taekwando Federation; www.worldtaekwondofederation.net/para-taekwondo
• Adaptive Martial Arts Association, 802/747-8184; Contact@adaptivemartialarts.org, www.adaptivemartialarts.org
• Dancing in the chair — Dr. Zibin Guo’s Wheelchair Tai Chi Chuan; www.youtube.com/watch?v=jR0DbXlS4GI