Student Betsy Hurley (left) and Jason Davis (right) practice technique with the help of Shidoshi Ron Van Clief at a seminar in Fair Haven, Vt., in July.
Adaptive martial arts helps people with disabilities find increased health, strength and confidence
Jason Davis quite literally fell into martial arts one day.
“[Davis] came to my school and I’m not handicap accessible so he literally fell down the stairs into my arms,” says martial arts instructor Kathleen Maxey-Scarcello. “So it was off to a great start.”
That was four years ago and Davis, a 35-year-old from Pittsford, Vt., has come a long way in martial arts since then.
“I was born with Cerebral Palsy,” Davis says. “The doctors told my parents that I wouldn’t make it and they actually brought a priest in and he gave me last rights. I made it through that, and so I guess you could say I’ve sort of been a fighter since the day I was born.”
Growing up with three older brothers, Davis had to be a fighter. He was in a wheelchair until he was 11 years old when he switched to forearm crutches, but his parents always raised him just like his other brothers and sister — doing chores, yard work, social activities with other kids his age and of course, wrestling with his brothers. So when Davis’s brothers signed up for martial arts, he wanted to as well.
“It was over the phone at 8 years old that I was told I would never be able to do martial arts because of the fact that I was in a wheelchair at the time and because of my disability,” Davis says. “That was really the first time I was ever told no, and it was a huge blow for me and I didn’t quite understand.”
Assuming that martial arts was mostly punching and kicking, he realized the voice on the other end of that call was probably right, and didn’t pursue it again until he was an adult.
Mind Over Matter
Maxey-Scarcello has known Davis since he was a kid, he went to school with her children and they worked on a rescue squad together when Davis was older.
“I got an email while I’m on vacation in Mexico from Jason saying, ‘Do you think I could do martial arts?’ At the time I had only kids programs … I didn’t think that he was talking about coming to me so I said, ‘Oh, Jason, anything you’ve set your mind to you’ve always been able to accomplish. I don’t have any doubt that you could do it.’ And I thought that was it and then I got home and I got a phone call saying, ‘Well when can we meet?’” Maxey-Scarcello says.
When Maxey-Scarcello and Davis started training they had nowhere to go for information on how to train someone with a disability in martial arts. Instead they had to make it up as they went along.
“There was really no organized organization out there doing adaptive martial arts at the time and basically what we did was we tried to find information on how to train me and we found a few people doing a few things here and there but there was really no place to go for information,” Davis says.
The first obstacle was finding a way for Davis to use his upper body and balance without his crutches at the same time. Sitting on a bench didn’t provide the back support Davis needs to sit up and using a regular chair prohibited too much movement. So Maxey-Scarcello found a kneeling office chair that locked Davis’s legs in place to give him stability, which worked, until he started hitting pads and bags.
“Because he’s focusing on hitting the pads or the bag and he wasn’t focusing on his balance, there was the risk of him falling over and getting hurt. So I searched everywhere online, couldn’t find anything to support him, so I called the circus,” Maxey-Scarcello says. “I ended up getting him a harness that he would hang from so he could stand and not use his arms to hit the bag and also to improve his balance. So I was like desperate trying to figure out how to do things and we did, as we went through we did.”
Paying it Forward
After their trials and tribulations in forming their own adaptive martial arts training program for Davis, the pair started imagining up ideas for building a network of information for other people with disabilities.
“I said, ‘We need a place where everybody can go to get educated on disabilities, first of all, and second of all, on how to teach adaptive and just a place to gather and share information,’ and I said, ‘I think we should start an organization.’ And [Maxey-Scarcello] said, ‘Well go to it.’” Davis says.
From this idea the Adaptive Martial Arts Association sprung to life. It started locally in Vermont as a resource for students and instructors to go for information on various disabilities and on how to train someone with a disability and where to go to get trained in martial arts if you have a disability. As soon as word got out, the calls started rolling in and now the Adaptive Martial Arts Association is serving students and instructors nation-wide.
“Basically what the association is, is we are a resource for information for various disabilities and we also serve as a place where you can come to get connected up with a martial arts school in your area that’s willing to train adaptive for disabled folks,” Davis says. “I wanted both the instructor and the student to have a place to go for information and I wanted no eight-year-old to ever be told no because there was no reason for it. I was doing it and I felt like we could help others do it as well.”