Did you know 61 million Americans live with a disability of some type? According to the Center for Disease Control, that’s 1 in 4 individuals. This presents a tremendous unmet need where there is an enormous population of people who, like anyone else, would like an opportunity to maintain or improve their health and fitness level. There is a disadvantage to this because often times these types of activities are not as inclusive to them as they could be!
What are we, as the martial arts community, doing to embrace this demographic and make a difference in their lives?
As martial artists, we thrive on the opportunity to empower others, to help them grow on many different levels –physically, emotionally, and even spiritually. We are often a guiding force in the lives of many students who use lessons from their martial arts training as a means of addressing other obstacles life throws their way. Why should this be any different for students who have abilities that are different from what we normally see? Why aren’t more of us working hard to find new ways to engage people who may need the life-changing exercise, self-confidence, self-defense, and martial ethics just as badly or even more than our current target students? The biggest challenge our industry faces in addressing this need is lack of education and FEAR – fear of differences, fear of change, fear of the unknown. As community leaders we must educate ourselves, overcome this fear, and promote martial arts for ALL.
Consider the sheer number of potential future students who would likely thrive in abilities inclusive programs that allow them to train despite impairments that life has dealt them. The obvious question is, how do I, as a martial arts school owner, educate myself and my instructors to teach and empower these individuals? Select a specific target audience, for instance those with anxiety or sensory disorders – this makes the education and training process much less intimidating. You can always expand to other groups later on.
So, what does the education process involve? Let’s take a basic look at some accommodations courtesy of two experts, Master Michael Sirota and Dr. Michael Braitsch. You may be surprised how little “extra effort” it takes.
THE MOST IMPORTANT UNDERSTANDING OF WORKING WITH PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES IS TO WORK WITH THE PERSON AND NOT THE DISABILITY! EACH STUDENT WILL BE UNIQUE AND AS YOU DEVELOP A STUDENT/INSTRUCTOR RELATIONSHIP YOU WILL HAVE THE PLATFORM TO MAKE A POSITIVE DIFFERENCE IN THEIR LIFE!
Focus on what your student CAN do and work from there
- Always do what is best for the student – adapt and yield your curriculum and teaching methodologies. Martial Arts must be adapted and created for each individual instead of every person falling into the same mold and requirements.
- Do no harm! All classes must be delivered in a way that it does not harm the student in any way, but rather inspires, motivates, educates and guides them to their optimal best!
- When possible, instruct activities starting simply, then adding complexity rather than “here’s the ‘real technique’ and here is the easier version or modification….”
- Call out/celebrate success – Everyone likes a win. Even the smallest victories can add up to bigger ones
- Ask for help – there are an abundance of adaptive or inclusive programs who willingly share info on how to instruct people, strategies for modifying techniques, or considerations for a specific diagnosis
- Use your resources – most diagnoses have a national organization with great educational material (e.g. the MS Society, Parkinson Foundation, etc.)
- Keep your dojo/school/gym physically accessible for all
- Shake hands and identify yourself when meeting someone new
- Ask if they want assistance and allow the person to take your arm (do not hold their arm)
- Ensure their walking path is free of clutter (weapons, pads, etc.) that could cause them to trip
- During the first few times through a technique, ask if they would like you to guide their arm motions
- Call out steps when guiding stay slightly ahead of the person
- Provide verbal directions (i.e., step-up, step down, “in 4 more steps turn left for…”)
- Know that not all visually impaired students will be totally blind – make eye contact and talk to them like you would with any other person
- Apply kinesthetic learning styles
Physically / Mobility Impaired
- Create an inclusive learning environment where you promote individualism and adaptation to all movement based on one’s personal abilities
- As always, focus on the basics first – everyone needs a good foundation
- Have each student/guardian complete a comprehensive Intake form detailing their health/status. It is the responsibility of a professional instructor to find out what each student can or cannot do.
- Do not touch the persons wheelchair, prosthetic limb, brace, or other walking assistance apparatus
- Do not ‘push’ the wheelchair unless asked
- When talking to someone in a chair, sit next to them – make eye contact
- Treat them with dignity
- Keep commands short (avoid multi-step commands)
- Repetition matters – everyone can develop “muscle memory” to some degree. You may need to allow for more repetitions than normal
- Ask direct questions – preferably with a yes/no answer
- Provide direct and simple instructions and information
- Speak slower & enunciate each word
- Provide clear and simple instructions
- Face the person when speaking to them
- Use body language
See, not so intimidating once you begin to learn and educate yourself! And the benefits you will bring to this demographic cannot be overstated. Some may never achieve black-belt level skills (many will!) but the focus should be on the journey, not the destination. Unlike “traditional” teaching methods where advancement is based on skill and victory over opponents, you can focus on character development and improvement in overall physical fitness. You can increase their self-confidence and self-esteem. As you see those transformations taking place, it will be as rewarding, if not more-so, than promoting your next black belt.
So, how do you start a special needs program?
- First, make a commitment to do it! There are 61 million reasons too!
- Define your programs target audience and what the purpose is –general fitness, self-defense… or it could have the same purpose as your core programs – martial arts for life!
- Focus on one type of ‘disability’. If you want to offer a program for people with visual impairment learn as much as you can on how to work with people with VI and then start creating a curriculum. Once the curriculum is tested ‘in house’ you are ready to start promoting it. Once that class is in operation and you are seeing success, then repeat the formula for another disability demographic.
- Education, education, education. There are several quality organizations that can provide the necessary instructor training. For instance:
- There are other organizations you may want to consider becoming an affiliate member of, such as Rock Steady Boxing, who has a highly respected boxing program that helps empower those with Parkinson’s disease (https://www.rocksteadyboxing.org/about/)
- Seek community support- local organizations that will assist you in not only the education process, but you will find most will actually help you recruit new students and will be your best long-term ally!
Thousands of people in your cities are waiting for you to start a martial arts based program welcoming them to your schools! You will have an enormous positive impact on their lives while at the same time growing your schools on all levels.
We hope this article has inspired you to open your doors, and your hearts so that martial arts truly are a place for ALL to shine!
Kicksite would like to acknowledge Master Michael Sirota and Dr. Michael Braitsch PT, DPT for their contributions to this article.
Mr. Sirota runs a school that since 1999 has served over 2,000 students with special needs and is the Founder of Global Para-Taekwondo Consultancy & Therapeutic Martial Arts International, CEO at World Para-Taekwondo Instructors Association and President of Canadian Association of Athletes with Intellectual Disability. More information can be found at https://therapeuticmartialarts.com/
Dr. Braitsch is a physical therapist, founder of Tribe Wellness (in Dallas, Texas), and an advocate for adaptive martial arts. He teaches adaptive kung fu, tai chi, and boxing programs specific to: Kids & Adults with Cerebral Palsy, people with Parkinson Disease, kids with developmental disorders, and chair-bound persons with Spinal Cord injuries. He is recognized as an expert in non-contact boxing for Parkinson Disease, having implemented a 3-year research study for the Parkinson Foundation and serves on the Adaptive Sports Committee at UT Southwestern Medical Center. Information can be found at https://www.tribewellness.org