Martial Arts

(The following originally appeared in the bimonthly magazine, Dialogue, which is published by Blindskills Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to disseminating resources and information to blind and visually impaired people and their families. This series of articles is being published here because the author believes that the basic information is relevant to martial arts newcomers as well as those who are visually impaired.)

Jorian Clair Martial Arts
Jorian was still partially sighted as a Tae Kwon Do Orange Belt (4th of 10 belt levels). After that, she was completely blind as she progressed to a Senior Red Belt(10th level and one test shy of receiving a Black Belt).

Achieve Self-Empowerment through Martial Arts

Part One of Three

By Jorian Clair 

        The loss of sight can trigger additional losses, such as a loss of mobility and with that a loss of independence, which can result in a loss of self-esteem. I say this as one who went from being fully sighted to years of slow but progressive sight loss and, ultimately, to total blindness, due to a genetic disease called retinitis pigmentosa.

        When my tunnel vision became severely restricted, I discovered that a person walking alone with a blind person’s cane signals vulnerability to predators looking for easy prey. Such an incident motivated me to learn techniques for self-defense. I was a mature woman with no knowledge of martial arts who, because of circumstances I will explain later, enrolled in classes for the ancient Korean form called Tae Kwon Do. Today, I hold a senior red belt, and have passed part one of a two-part test for my black belt. I lost the last of my sight at the orange belt level (fourth of ten), so I completed the next five levels while completely blind. 

Realize Your Full Potential through Martial Arts

        Classes in aerobics, muscle toning and strengthening, and self-defense techniques focus on the body. Martial arts train the whole person so that you can realize your full potential. Mind, body and spirit (in the philosophical rather than a religious sense) are engaged, which result in the following benefits.

        Physical improvements include better balance and flexibility, development of toned muscles and expanded endurance, strengthened stamina and cardiovascular performance, heightened awareness and quickened responses. All of these are of special significance to those who are visually impaired or blind because they help prevent injuries, prepare the body for acts of protection, and promote a sense of self-esteem.

        Mental improvements include increased memory retention and faster recall, accelerated problem solving and greater alertness, easier adaptability and intensified concentration, stress reduction and attitude adjustments that result in a more tranquil state of mind.

        Spiritual improvements include an advance humanistic perspective that encourages the practice of tolerance, nonviolence and respect for others; an integration of mind, body and spirit for inner harmony and balance; and expanded capacities for empathy and compassion. 

Is the Study of Martial Arts Right for You?

        Self-evaluation is essential prior to selecting a specific martial art. Your age, gender, physical condition and personal motivation are critical elements in this evaluation process.

        Age:  Training in martial arts can begin as early as age five. With the right instructor (more on this later) such training is especially beneficial to children and adolescents because the principles of self-discipline and courtesy to others are instilled. If your goals include competing in tournaments, then remember that as is true with most types of sports, the aging process has a negative impact on peak performance. But if personal achievement rather than competing against others is your goal, then it is your health and physical condition that determine your participation in martial arts training, not your calendar years.

        Gender:  Usually, males are most powerful in their upper bodies while females carry their greatest strength in their lower bodies. This physiological difference should be considered when choosing an appropriate type of martial art for you.

        Physical Condition:  You should check with your physician before enrolling in a martial arts class. Such an undertaking will be easier for you if you are already in good physical condition, yet I have witnessed the transformation of students from couch potato physiques into physical powerhouses. I do, however, recommend that if you have not been in the habit of stretching exercises, you undertake such a program prior to beginning a class in martial arts. Stretching leads to flexibility and helps prevent injury.

        Personal Motivation: A student who is visually impaired or blind may find that the challenges of training in martial arts sometimes seem overwhelming. You can overcome such barriers if your motivation is inspired by a desire to regain physical self-esteem and recapture your sense of self-empowerment.

How to Choose the Right Martial Art for You

        The sight impaired and blind have long favored the martial arts of Jujitsu and Judo because these forms tend to be up close and personal, i.e., if you cannot see your opponent, you may need to use touch as a substitute for sight. These two techniques emphasize “grappling” (similar to wrestling) and throwing, which are especially suitable for those with superior upper body strength. (Note: I have no experience with Chinese martial arts, such as Kung Fu, so they are not covered in this article.)

        Increasingly, such individuals are taking up Karate and Tae Kwon Do. The former utilizes powerful strikes, punches and kicks to sensitive pressure points for disabling opponents. These techniques also are used in TKD, but the emphasis on kicking makes this a good match for the lower body strength of the female physique.

Prepare for Becoming a Martial Arts Student

        I am not a martial arts master, teacher or scholar, but as a senior red belt student I can tell you that you need to prepare yourself for undertaking this new venture. Such preparation includes researching the world of martial arts and maintaining a daily session of stretching and toning your muscles. Equally important is to remain steadfast in your dedication and commitment to achieve self-empowerment through martial arts.

        In Parts Two and Three of this article, we will explore the following: how to find and “vet” a martial arts training venue; what you need to look for in an instructor; ways in which your training may vary; aids and methods you can use to help you learn what you cannot see; and the training technique I created with my instructor, who had never before taught a student who was blind.

Achieve Self-Empowerment through Martial Arts

Part Two of Three

by Jorian Clair

You have researched the subject of martial arts and selected the one that seems best suited to you, plus an alternative in case training in your first choice is unavailable. (See Part One of this series.) Now you must find the right venue in which to train and the right instructor to teach you.

How to Search for Training Venues

            Before you begin your search, be realistic in evaluating the geographical parameters of where your venue can be located. The degree of your mobility for getting to and from classes will be a determining factor in where you train. Once you have defined an acceptable commuting area, you can begin your search for a venue. Sources for this information include: independently owned and operated martial arts studios (Japanese dojo or Korean dojang); national martial art association training schools; and blind and visually impaired service organizations (funding issues may limit the type and amount of martial arts instruction available). Check out other service organizations, such as the YMCA and YWCA. Cities sometimes sponsor martial arts clubs, often in conjunction with a service organization. Local recreational programs occasionally offer martial arts instruction. Training is usually provided by independent teachers who have agreed to conduct such classes at a park or recreational facility.

            Potential sources for locating these venues include your local telephone directory, Chamber of Commerce, reference librarian at the public library, and a targeted Internet search. Scope out what is available in and around your own neighborhood. Attend martial arts tournaments held in your town. At such events, you can network and pick up flyers describing local training venues.

How to Vet a Potential Venue

            A telephone interview can net you basic information, but it is best to screen a potential venue in person. If you do not possess sufficient sight for a visual evaluation, have someone sighted with you for this purpose. When you enter a venue, does it appear to be clean and safe? During my own search, I once witnessed a student’s head hit the floor because the mat was too small for the type of fall being practiced. Ask to speak with the person with whom you should consult about becoming a student; if this person is not available, request an appointment; and ask if you can “drop-in” to observe a class in training. The last provides an opportunity to evaluate the interactions between instructors and their students and, when family members are present (as is often the case when students are children), to obtain feedback from these individuals.

            Find out if students are taught according to age and/or belt level groups, and what the schedules are for these classes. Ask whether a free “demo” session is available for prospective students, what the charge is per class when participating in a group, and what the “package” cost is for a specified number of classes (usually paid for in advance). If possible, begin with pay-per-class until you are certain you want to make an extended commitment. Naturally, group training is less expensive than one-on-one instruction.

How to Find the Right Teacher for You

            Before you can vet a potential teacher, you must first be certain of your goals. If you want to become a tournament competitor, you may find a “macho” instructor with an aggressive teaching style a better match for you than a teacher whose emphasis is on integration of mind, body and spirit.

            Unless the venue you are vetting is dedicated to training visually impaired students in martial arts, be prepared to discuss your disability with the owner/operator/supervising instructor. Be honest and candid, but positive about your ability to succeed as a martial arts student.

            If the person with whom you consult declines to accept you as a student, diplomatically try to find out the reason for the refusal. Is it because the venue’s instructors have had no experience in working with visually impaired students (and cannot afford the time, which means money, to take on such a challenge)? Or does the person with whom you are talking simply doubt that a visually impaired individual can learn and adequately perform martial arts? If you suspect this is the case, point out that this judgment cannot be accurately made unless you are allowed to try. But also remember that you want a teacher who has a positive attitude about you as a student.

            Regardless of the outcome of the interview, never take rejection personally. Instead, view it as one of many barriers you are going to overcome. Such resolve is self-empowering.

            I was motivated to learn self-defense techniques because of a personal safety incident. I knew nothing about martial arts and so was not properly prepared for my search. I experienced rejection, but did some rejecting of my own. Until the day I entered a dojang where my remaining sight allowed me to identify that the venue was the right one for me. What about the teacher, you ask?

            My decision was sealed when, during a consultation, the gold medalist owner/operator of the dojang said to me: “Jorian, you must challenge your disability.”

            In the final installment of this three-part series we will review ways in which your training may vary, depending on the type and scope of your visual impairment; aids and methods you can use to help you learn what you cannot see; and the training technique I created with my instructor, who had never before taught a student who was blind.

Achieve Self-Empowerment through Martial Arts

Part Three of Three

by Jorian Clair

In parts one and two of this three-part article, I offered information to help you enroll in classes for the martial art of your choice. I hope the following suggestions may ease your way on the path of this new undertaking.

     To get on the same page with your instructor, be honest and detailed about the specific limitations imposed by your visual impairment. This information will enable your teacher to determine what accommodations, if any, will need to be made when you are training in a group of other students. For example, if you have limited peripheral vision, ask if training sometimes requires students to line up in more than two rows. If so, request that you be positioned at the end of either the front or back row. This way, you will have a student on only one side of you and another either in front or behind you. Explain to your instructor that this will help you avoid colliding with the students nearest you. You also should inform your instructor of any previously sustained physical injury that might limit your performance of some martial art movements or exacerbate the injury.

     You will need to orient yourself to your classroom. This includes pacing off the length and width of the area where you will be training. If you do not have sufficient sight to do this initial orientation on your own, request assistance. Record this information in whatever way you are accustomed to maintaining data. I use a mini cassette recorder that is small enough to be carried in a pocket or purse.

     Listen for sounds that can enhance your orientation. In my dojang, there is a waterfall that provides an excellent auditory clue--unless the volume of noise from group training makes it impossible to hear the water! During group classes, you also may receive verbal cues from your instructor and the other students who, in martial arts, are usually committed to helping their peers.

     Most people who have never trained in martial arts do not realize that in some forms, such as Tae Kwon Do, students must memorize hundreds of movements before they can earn their first black belt. Every instruction, every movement--including the exact position of each part of your body--should be recorded so you can practice at home and duplicate the movement in a future class. This is why I recommend that you always have a mini cassette recorder with you when going to your martial art classes. You can’t have it on you while training, but should tape your instruction notes as soon as possible after the conclusion of a class. This way, you may remember most of the instruction from what is usually an hour-long session and, if not, someone may be available to help you with this task. The cassettes can be labeled and stored for easy reference; use a different cassette for each class or for each belt level. If you use adapted computer technology, as I do, copy your taped instructions into your designated files. Either your computer screen reader or the taped notes can be listened to while you practice at home.

     I was still partially sighted when I began my training in Tae Kwon Do, which enabled me to participate in group training through the first four belt levels (out of a total of 10). But by the time I tested to advance to the fifth level, I had lost the last of my sight. My instructor and the grandmaster knew of my dedication to Tae Kwon Do and my commitment to achieving a black belt. What could we do that would make it possible for me to continue my studies?

     We resolved the dilemma by switching me from three group classes per week to one private lesson, and my instructor and I created a way in which he could communicate instructions that students usually learn by visually observing their teachers. I came up with the idea of using the “clock face” system often taught to visually impaired people for locating food on a plate. The following is a description of the method we developed for teaching martial arts to a student who is blind. But your teacher must be accustomed to “mirror image” instruction in order to give verbal commands from your point of view.

     So, instructions for a new position would be given in this way: “Assume a horse’s stance with your left foot at 12 o'clock, your right foot at 6 o'clock and facing 3 o'clock.”

     When verbal communication proved insufficient for arms and hands techniques, my teacher would place or move my limbs so I could feel what was needed. Such assistance for a specific position or movement rarely had to be repeated because the information was at once recorded by my mind and body, and assimilated. A spinning turn in which only one foot remains on the mat can completely disorient blind students because they have no visual anchor point. At such times, if I came out of a turn at 2:00, when I should have been facing 12:00, my instructor would simply call out to me in a low voice. With this auditory cue, I could at once move into the correct position. My teacher continually adjusted his own position so that he was always at 12 o'clock for me.

     To break wood, which was required at the end of a test for advancing to the next belt level, I would feel the size and shape of the piece of wood being held by the instructor. Then I would estimate the number of steps I needed to back away in order to perform the kicking technique assigned to me. Once in position, I would focus with such intensity on my mental image of the piece of wood that at some point I would feel as though I could actually “see” it. And that is when I would execute my move. As I trained, I concentrated on emulating the visual image I carried in my head of how a Tae Kwon Do student should appear in carriage and bearing. You are undertaking a journey that will challenge you at every level of your being. Always remember that while you may stumble on this path toward self-empowerment, you will succeed in achieving your goal if you remain steadfast in your commitment to becoming the best you can at the martial art of your choice.

Knowledge is Self-Empowering

     My knowledge of Tae Kwon Do helped me thwart an abduction attempt. Had I not known how to defend myself when a man tried to drag me from the sidewalk where I was waiting for a taxi, he probably would have succeeded. His car was at the curb, passenger door open, engine running. But, instead of trying to pull away from him, which is the instinctive reaction to such a situation, I lunged toward him with my right leg. This positioned me close enough to him to know where his body parts were. It also startled him into a momentary hesitation.

     With my left arm in his grasp and my right hand holding my blind person's cane, which I call Charlie, my options for self-defense were limited. (Since a blind person cannot run away from an attacker, the aggressor must be rendered harmless.) I was not positioned to deliver a groin or knee strike, either of which could disable my opponent. I could drop Charlie, freeing my right hand for a fist to his throat or an upper open palm strike to his nose, but I was reluctant to be disarmed of my cane.

     It took only seconds for these options to flash through my mind and my decision to be made: I rammed the head of Charlie upward into the underside of the man's chin. Simultaneously, I shouted an ear-splitting martial arts cry of "Kiav!"

     My would-be abductor yelled, probably as much from shock and surprise as from pain. He yanked his restraining hand from my arm and I heard the passenger door slam shut, then that on the driver's side. A moment later, the idling car peeled rubber as my assailant took off.

     Martial Arts can provide anyone, sighted as well as visually impaired, with the knowledge needed for self-defense. And when this invisible weapon is successfully wielded, the sense of self-empowerment can be thrilling.

(If you found this article of interest, please share it with others, and "like" it by clicking on my Facebook Page on the link below. If you would like to read about two personal incidents relevant to my becoming a martial arts student, please read my Blog column, "From Me to You" by clicking on the link below. Thank you, Jorian.)


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Last Updated 09/27/14
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