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Combating Disability through Martial Arts

August 14 2013 | by

Taekwondo students in a gym. The master has a black belt. Others have a red belt.

Losing motor skills or not having full control over your leg or hand is like losing a part of your body.  A brain surgery some years ago affected my motor skills, and I’m now in physical therapy to regain full hand-eye coordination and balance.

 I’ve tried piano lessons, sewing, you name it. When nothing seemed to work, I took a hard look at my rehab options and reverted back to martial arts, which I began doing years ago. As scary as it may sound for a brain surgery patient, I now swear by it.

I’ve tried many martial arts schools, and the Karate and other uniforms from those free one-month trials are gathering dust. Gentle martial arts like Tai Chi and Aikido were easy to adapt to, but the highly physical styles like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Karate were challenging.

I finally selected the kick-heavy Taekwondo, which addressed my weaknesses effectively. I didn’t settle for the first school I entered; it took me years to find the right instructor who could understand my needs.

Most instructors thrive on challenges, and are willing to tweak curricula to specific training needs.  But you need to be honest on your limitations, set realistic goals, and be clear that you don’t want to be pushed too hard.  My requests included no head strikes due to a delicate skull, no sparring, and no extreme kicks for fear of losing balance and falling.

The best trainers will be creative, flexible and anticipate weaknesses. My trainer knows my weaknesses, and doesn’t hesitate to scold if I use my disability as a crutch to escape tough workouts.

A passionate teacher will create individual training plans for students that need extra help, says Eirinn Norrie, a Taekwondo instructor who has worked with impaired children.

There’s a child-like enthusiasm in Norrie that can spark a creative and joyful learning environment. With a 4th degree black belt in Taekwondo, Norrie preaches time and patience as key to helping students with disabilities.

“An instructor must try several different ways of teaching before finding a method that clicks for a student with a disability. It is helpful to come prepared with several back-up plans in case a certain activity, game, or teaching style does not work,” Norrie says.

One of Norrie’s past students was a young girl with dyspraxia, which impacted her speech, balance, confidence and learning. Norrie adapted a unique lesson plan in which a different word was created for each movement. The funny voices kept the young girl entertained and focused, and she progressively got better.

“When I would perform the moves, I would say them in a loud and silly voice. I don’t know why I started doing this– but it stuck. After a few weeks went by, she began to say the words as she did the moves,” Norrie says.

Though some speech issues lingered, the girl became chattier over time. Parental involvement was also important in this case, and for Norrie, the reward was to watch the student grow.

“Having disabled or slow-learning students forces me to choose other methods of training, which definitely makes me a better teacher,” Norrie says, adding that she loves experimenting with new thoughts and tools to make teaching more effective.

A glowing example of using martial arts to overcome limitations is Jessica Cox, who was born without arms due to a birth defect. She’s the world’s first licensed armless pilot—using her feet to fly a plane—and  the first armless black-belt in the American Taekwondo Association. Cox also can eat meal with her legs, aided by chopsticks. But her superhuman effort can’t be replicated by all, so tone down expectations and take time to research options.

It is important to link the disability with the limitations and dangers associated with a martial art, advises Sherry Kay Cataldo, who is a black belt in Hapkido, a Korean martial art similar to Judo. She is working with other martial artists to develop an instruction program to help the visually impaired.

As a contact martial art, Hapkido instruction could be hard for some visually impaired students to see, and it would be challenging to figure out where attacks are coming from. Instruction needs to be broken down to teach each sequential step verbally and tactually.

“Low-vision students have just enough vision that things may startle or confuse them which can more easily translate to fear. Talking through everything we are doing and why, as well as moving slowly will help prevent a great deal of that fear and startle reflex,” Cataldo says.

Cataldo is working with her instructor to create a Hapkido program that helps visually impaired students advance in belts. She has novel ideas for the program.

“I felt that for belt advancing testing skills, it would be better to replace them with additional skills such as chokes and cane defense — using their white cane for personal defense,” Cataldo says.

As a certified teacher and special needs provider, Cataldo has the skills to create the program. She knows Braille, and teaches students with visual impairments and other disabilities in the public school system. She hopes Hapkido will foster self-esteem, independence, and self-advocacy.

“There is nothing like the feeling you get when they look at you with this amazed, proud expression and announce, ‘I did it’,” Cataldo says.

Choosing the best martial art and instructor can be an intimidating process at first. There will many waivers to sign, and requests for doctor’s letters as most martial arts schools seek legal protection regardless of whether someone has a disability. Martial arts involve close-range contact, and schools don’t want to be responsible for any risk you undertake.

The benefits, however, outweigh the risks—and the paperwork. There’s no better feeling than using martial arts to gain confidence, fitness and coordination—and restore your sense of physical and mental ability.


Profiles of people with disabilities in martial arts

Disability Martial Arts Association in the UK

Kicking the Spectrum, specialized martial arts training for children, in New York

Kikai Adapted Martial Arts, North Vancouver,  Canada




  • pretap

    More classes like this needed for those teens (and adults?) who have Autism and other disabilities too.

  • anna hong

    As an tkd instructor who has suffered some seizures, i know what it’s like to not feel “normal”. When i finally was put on the right medication to stop my seizures, i suffer from memory problems. I do find my martial arts helps me.

  • Jeni Stepanek

    I have just seen the article “Teacher of the Blind and Visually Impaired Uses Martial Arts Bringing Dedication, Discipline and …” highlighting Sherry Kay Cataldo and her amazing work to support the people with disabilities through martial arts training. I learned of the article because I was alerted to a quote about “teamwork and unity” that was included, and attributed to my late son, poet and peace activist Mattie Stepanek. I always love seeing Mattie’s message alive in today’s world, a decade after he left us at age 13. But this was a special mention of him… most folks don’t realize that he earned a 1st Degree Black Belt in Hapkido by the age of 8, and served as an assistant instructor until age 10 when the progression of his neuromuscular disease made it too challenging and medically dangerous for him to continue. Although he had to cease “doing” Martial Arts, valuable lessons of patience, perseverance, respect, self-control, (and more…) were a part of his body, mind, and spirit for the rest of his life. Thank you for sharing this article, and for this great program.

    Jeni Stepanek, Ph.D. (“Mattie’s mom”)
    more about Mattie (including a photo of him as a Black Belt) at

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