One summer evening in Tucson, Arizona, I was on my way home from the university after staying late to finish an assignment. It was about eight thirty and the sun was almost at rest behind the Tucson Mountains. When I was about halfway to my destination, I noticed a figure standing on the corner about a block away. As I got closer, I saw a man in his early twenties, looking rather scruffy as though he had not showered in several days. He was at best an imitation relic left over from the sixties in need of a fix. As I came within range, he asked me if I had any loose change. I said that I had no money and kept going. He was persistent, however, and at the point where I was closest to him, he took several steps to approach me with a clearly malicious intent.
Just before I was in his reach, I turned to face him, swinging the edge of my wheelchair’s footrest between us, mere inches from his shins. Our eyes connected as he came to a complete halt. At the same time the harmful intent with which he had approached me quickly dissolved into shame, and after a moment of stunned silence he returned to his original perch on the corner. Feeling safe and sure that he would not mount another attack when I turned away, I continued my trip homeward.
That evening I was fortunate that my training in the martial arts allowed me to stop an attack and return home unscathed. Many, however, do not have the luxury of time for martial arts training, and easily avoided attacks like this one often escalate into violent crimes. In a society where crime is rampant and up to 40 percent of women experience physical or sexual assault in their lifetimes, all people, with and without disabilities, need to have the skills of self-defense.
Criminals seek out those who appear weakest. People with disabilities face increased vulnerability, with some studies suggesting a 4 to 10 percent higher risk for us than for our able-bodied counterparts. Regardless of the physical limitations one faces, self-protection is ultimately an individual responsibility. Yet, with such an endless spectrum of disabilities it can be challenging to find a method of self-defense suitable for a wide range of capabilities.
Jeffrey Prather recognized this issue eight years ago when he designed the Disabled Defense course with the help of his associate, P.J. Dixon. Drawing from his experience of 30-plus years in traditional martial arts and 20 years in military close-quarter combat and law enforcement, Prather used the basic mechanical principals of natural body movement as a foundation for his techniques.
Using angles, timing and distance, students learn practical defense techniques that easily adapt to the ways their bodies naturally react. Since each individual has a different set of abilities and limitations, Disabled Defense teaches students to move as they would ordinarily, rather than confining them to a set of specific movements. Whether students have auditory or visual impairments, mobility-related disabilities or any range of developmental disabilities, the techniques and curriculum can meet any combination of their needs. While all of the techniques taught in Disabled Defense are extremely effective when one is unarmed, it is quite common to see walkers, wheelchairs, crutches, canes and other devices being employed as weaponry.
“It is important to use every tool in your tool box,” says Prather, and indeed that is exactly what he teaches his students to do. Something as simple as causing a wellplaced, timely spasm may be enough to allow escape from an attacker.
The foundational movements from which the techniques are formed are simple and effective. The key to surviving any attack is awareness, and developing this skill is where Disabled Defense begins. By teaching students to have a greater awareness of their environment, Disabled Defense first shows students how to avoid an attack before it materializes. From there the course explores escapes from basic grabs, chokes and restraints. Later it covers gun and knife disarming, fighting in and around a vehicle, and ground fighting scenarios.
Often presented in a one-day format, the course is full of live training, giving students many opportunities to familiarize themselves with all the techniques. Additionally, a lecture and discussion educate students about violent crime statistics and what they can expect if a violent crime occurs. All of the instructors for Disabled Defense are highly trained and dedicated to the students’ success.
In my nine years of training in various martial arts, this is the first self-defense program I’ve found for people with disabilities that has the versatility to meet the needs of everyone involved. The skills I learned in Disabled Defense have saved my life on more than one occasion. Without them, I might not be here today.
by S. Barton Cutter