The use of the word disability is probably not the right way to address martial training for anyone. But as some individuals have more challenges than others, the use of the term probably makes sense.
Now there are some schools with extremely hard training structures, that no one less than fit can survive. Their choice no judgment from me.
Then there are other programs that take another approach and work with those individuals to help them acquire what martial skills they can use.
When I was a beginner I first became aware of such individuals at tournaments. I competed against those with palsy (extreme shaking during movement), against those with limbs missing (one arm or both legs it varied), against a blind competitor. I very quickly realized that there were those who obtained martial potential and then there was everybody else.
I had some experience training several students who were classified as intellectually challenged, but with patient instruction they were as capable of learning as anyone.
Move forward several decades and one of my most focused adult students, one day stopped training. I was long past being surprised, when black belts (even long term black belts) make adult choices they often just leave with no expectations). John Dinger was one of those cases. He was a dedicated student of Isshinryu and of my Tai Chi program, but one day he just stopped coming. I was not surprised there was no explanation, recognizing everyone had to do what was right for them.
I saw my adult students about 3 times a week, I never called them as seeing them in class was enough intrusion into their lives. So whenever they decided to move on, I simply respected their choice and that was that.
About 6 months later a surgeon in my program came and told me about John. John went to his to explain he had developed a unique genetic condition, one that teams of doctors in Boston and at the Mayo clinic could not diagnose. Because of their personal relationship John choose not to use Doc. But he decided he wanted Doc to explain his situation to us. And Doc did.
Among John’s symptoms were he no longer could control himself. For example when standing he might suddenly lose control and fall on his face. And the conditions he was experiencing were getting worse.
However hearing from Doc what John’s situation was, the next Sunday I went over to see him after Tai Chi class. John was surprised but I explained to him his circumstanced did not mean he could stop training. John showed me his lack of control. Then I went to work.
We started with his tai chi, I showed him how he could work the first row of the form while seated. Both of us sat in chairs and I went through the form with him. Of course we could not do the stepping, but we focused on the arm movements and the controlled breathing.
Then weekly I began visiting on Sundays. We worked on his tai chi, and eventully began working on Isshinryu kata while seated.
Of course a lot of each of those arts was not used, but there also was a lot he could still work through.
And during those sessions we grew closer.
Eventually John’s condition worsened so he went to a Nursing Home for more care. When he went so did I and our workouts continued.
Eventually he was transferred to a nursing home closer to his house to make it easier on his wife. I drove him to his new location.
But his condition worsened, To the point he and his wife chose to move him home, in order not to allow the nursing home keep him alive on machines. And that occurred.
One day after John returned home he showed me how things had deteriorated. That picking up a glass of water had become impossible. He would spill it everytime.
Having worked with John all along, knowing what he could do, I made a suggestion. It he could not pick up a glass without spilling it, why not try flowing his arm past the glass as in his tai chi, then flow the arm back picking up the glass as it returned.
He tried it and that worked.
The next week in Boston with the team of doctors who were following his case, he showed how he was unable to pick up a glass. Then he showed them how using the tai chi motion he could do so.
The doctor’s were amazed and could not explain why the tai chi motion worked.
I believe I have an idea. The control of his nervous system developed as a baby and then did most things on automatic, that is why the joke works where a chair is pulled away from a sitting man and he falls when sitting and the chair is not there. Sitting has become an automatic nervous function.
His condition obviously was affecting those first patterned nervous responses.
But John learned his Tai Chi from me as an adult. Using a different layer of his nervous system. One that may not yet have been affected by his condition.
Unproven hypothesis in any case.
As things went John’s condition keep getting worse. Nothing which was attempted made a difference.
But John and I kept doing what was possible, the life martial.
Of course there was a sad ending and John passed away.
That is the nature of things. Life continues, and John is remembered by me and many others.
Now move forward in time. Sequentially I was informed by Doc I had developed diabetes II. So I made changed to my diet, started working out harder and walking. Too soon I also learned I had colon cancer.
There was surgery, an ostomy, chemo therapy, and really committed walking.
Then I began developing various disabilities.
Further surgery to remove the ostomy. But the disabilities kept worsening.
Teams of doctors all of which after innumerable tests had no idea what was wrong with me.
So I choose my own adult decision. Enough tests and doctors who had no idea how to treat where I was. I would just live my life.
My muscles were weaker, even making my speech very difficult to understand. My fine motor control was most non existent. My balance was greatly less.
I never stopped training or helping teach, but at a much slower pace. And I kept walking.
I stopped driving. I started walking with a cane. Then one day after returning from a walk, I was taking our puppy out and tripped at the front door, fell down 3 steps and hit the ground, A trip to the emergency room, told I had 3 broken ribs, and sent home. A month of pain every time I breathed.
Then I got my walker. Continuing to walk daily. Eventually I returned to training and teaching, not letting things stop me.
A year later I began falling, they discovered a hematoma on my brain. So brain surgery to drain that blood. Recovery and then back to walking and training as I could.
There was so much I could no longer do. But when sharing application potential at the immediate range my technique could still sting.
I had to focus on what I could do, discard that which was outside my capability.
Nothing of my practice was to gain approval from others.
For example an entire range of use of lower body kata movements were no longer possible.
Kata practice and tai chi practice remained, but vastly slower, less stable and ranges of movements discarded.
But what remained could be honed to retain martial effectiveness.
Most of the classical kobudo weapons I practiced were discarded. What I retained was some short stick, a bit of kama, and some tanto training.
But I began exploring the very short stick, finding incredible force enhancement by employing it with my movements available. Even my walker, which is very light, is instantly collapsable and available to pummel.
But day by day what I can do is a work in progress, requiring continual training.
Not for others approval, just for my own peace of mind.
I have trained so many places, committed karate everywhere.
If the day comes that I can do nothing but lie in bed. My training will continue, even if all I can do is breath and remember.
What is disability but a comparison of how some learn compared to others. In some way each of us is different from each other. Perhaps in far different ways. We work to live our lives within the space we inhabit. No other occupies that space at the same time.
That time, that place, we just are.
Our are might be different from what other’s are’s are.
So be it.
Continue to train,
Continue to breathe.