The Art of Combat

Adaptive martial arts helps people with disabilities find increased health, strength and confidence.

One drunk man on the streets of Boston was enough to help Erik Kondo realize his need to defend himself in confrontational situations like the one that night.

“[My wife and I] were dealing with this drunk character who was by my car that was parked and we wanted to get in the car. I’m dealing with this person and all of a sudden I realized that if I just get in the car then my wife has to deal with this person while trying to put my chair in the car, so that’s not an option. You know we can’t just get in the car and go,” says Kondo, a full-time wheelchair user with a T-4/5 spinal-cord injury (SCI) sustained in a motorcycle accident at age 19. “It was sort of a wake-up call for me to think, ‘Well, I really need to figure out how to handle this type of situation,’ because I really didn’t have a good answer for how to handle it.”

It wasn’t much longer before the 48-year-old was researching martial arts for people in wheelchairs.

“One of the problems for people with disabilities specifically is finding the martial arts that actually works for them,” Kondo says. “Some people think, ‘Well I can’t kick, I can’t do it,’ but no, that’s not true. There are other types of martial arts that focus in on not kicking.”

Conquering Fear

Betsy Hurley was one of those people who didn’t think martial arts could work for her.

The 32-year-old Alpine skier from Bennington, Vt., was born with spina bifida and is paralyzed at the waist. When her personal trainer suggested trying martial arts, she was hesitant and afraid.

“When you hear about it originally you’re like, ‘Oh well there’s a bunch of kicking, well I can’t do that.’” Hurley says. “I never thought it was possible, but I would not change it. It’s definitely a lifestyle and it’s a great lifestyle to have in my back pocket. You know, it’s brought independence, it’s brought confidence. I can go out and not be afraid.”

Erik Kondo (right) enters a wrist lock from a push on a fellow martial artist.

Hurley began martial arts in 2007 and worked her way to a blue belt in tekken ryu and Chinese goju, a mixture of hard and soft techniques, with the help of an instructor who adapts moves so she can be integrated right into a traditional martial arts class.

The only thing Hurley does different is punch when the rest of the class kicks. She believes she can go out in the community without needing someone to protect her.

“Being a female and being in a wheelchair, people think that you can’t protect yourself really … because you’re in a wheelchair, you’re more vulnerable and people think, ‘Oh, well they don’t know anything,’” Hurley says. “Those folks that think I don’t know what I’m talking about, if they try to do something, well then they are going to find out that I know more in my back pocket than they were expecting.”

Getting Focused

Eighteen years of experience later, which includes a third-degree black belt in jujitsu, Kondo has found more than just self-defense in martial arts.

“I got involved with martial arts probably in the same way most people do, because they are looking for its self-defense component,” Kondo says. “Since then, through my study of martial arts, I’ve realized that even though that’s the aspect that gets people in, the martial arts in itself is actually about more than self-defense. In fact, self-defense is actually a small component of the martial arts. So what the martial arts provides for people, specifically for people with disabilities, is great opportunity for physical movement and training combined with also the mental and spiritual aspects.”

That combination of physical and mental focus can do a lot of good for people with disabilities such as Jason Davis. Born with cerebral palsy, the 35-year-old from Pittsford, Vt., was a wheelchair user until age 11 when he switched to forearm crutches. Davis has been practicing martial arts for the past four years and because of the techniques and strength he’s gained, he’s no longer taking any medications.

“I said [to the doctor], ‘I’d rather not take medication because although it helps your legs it affects the rest of your body and I’m not sure I care for that idea.’ I said, ‘Let me try martial arts.’ He said, ‘You can try anything you want, but in three months you’ll be on medication.’ And I went back in three months and … I was able to control the clicking of my heels just by what I’d learned in martial arts about focus and things like that,” Davis says. “Every time I would go back he would just see incredible changes due to the martial arts and now he is totally amazed by what we are doing with martial arts and now I’ve been off medication. Medication is now totally off the table.”

Building a Network

When all three started training in martial arts, they had nowhere to go for information on how to teach someone with a disability. Instead they had to make it up as they went along.

Davis took what he learned and wanted a way to help others. From this idea the Adaptive Martial Arts Association (AMAA) sprung to life. It started locally in Vermont as a resource for students and instructors to go for information on various disabilities, how to train someone with a disability and where to receive training in martial arts if you have a disability. As soon as word got out, the calls started rolling in and now AMAA is serving students and instructors nationwide, including Kondo and Hurley.

AMAA helps wheelchair users, and people with all disabilities, find not only a school or instructor in their area that will help them, but also a style of martial arts that best suits their needs.

“There are so many different types that if people investigate it there’s a good chance that they will find something that they will get excited about,” Kondo says. “The whole thing of like, ‘You don’t know what you don’t know,’ is pretty applicable here.” 

Gaining Strength

Martial arts is another way to gain strength, something Kondo, Hurley and Davis can all agree on. Martial arts provides Hurley with the cardio exercise she needs to keep up with her Alpine skiing, which is why she started it as a secondary workout in 2007. Kondo finds it’s not only good exercise, it’s a good reason to get the exercise.

“It gives you an opportunity to really explore … physical and mental things that you can do but really push boundaries, push envelopes on what you think you may or may not be able to do in a supportive setting,” Kondo says. “It’s great for just movement in itself, strengthening and also giving you reasons to want to be strengthening … you could be better if you were stronger. It gives you a goal. Everybody can benefit from exercise to some degree.”

“You are working mind, body and spirit and it equates to strength and power, I think that’s what’s appealing,” Davis says. “Staying in shape no matter what is important and if you make it fun then you are going to be more apt to stick with it.”

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