Matthew Killian, a 24-year-old student at Lawrence World Class Karate dojo in Fayetteville. He won two gold medals for Special Demonstration of kata and kumite at the 2023 Niagara Karate Championship and received an official Senate Commendation as well. For Matthew, karate was not only just a sport but a means to break down personal barriers and overcome personal challenges in his personal life successfully.
Nina Chatterjee, a contributor to ABILITY Magazine, sat down with Matthew’s parents Kimberly and Tom Killian as well as his karate tutor Hanshi (Master) Rande Lawrence to discuss Matthews’ struggles and wins through life. His journey and his success an embodiment of hard work and team spirit. Matthew even brought his medals to the interview, waving them happily at the camera lens.
As narrated by Kimberly, Matthew has been epileptic since the age of three and he was diagnosed with autism when he was ten years old. He became blind at the age of 19 due to a rare disease called Leber Hereditary Optic Neuropathy (LHON). “When he was 19, the teacher sent a note and said, “He seems to be not seeing things. He can’t see the board. He’s walking into people. He’s walking into the walls.” So, we took him to the doctor, and his doctor said, “His eyesight’s off the charts. You’ve got to see a specialist.” So, we saw a specialist and found out he has a rare eye disease. It’s genetic. And within just months, he went from being sighted to losing 90% of his sight. That was a big change for him.”
Matthew was not welcoming the helplessness that he faced and asked to learn karate. And today, Kimberly happily confirms, “Karate has given Matthew his confidence back, his strength back. His balance has improved. He had to relearn and rethink where his body is in space and around him. He has a little bit of peripheral vision, so he can see movement and shadow off to the side. Karate has helped him know where his body is in space. I have nothing but positive things to say about it.”
Killian has been training on a one-on-one basis for over a year with Lawrence, head instructor at LWC Karate dojo. He has lessons every Wednesday, about an hour a week. Apart from practice, he continues to do his exercises at home and independently gets ready for the upcoming next week’s session. As stated by his parents: “He simply loves it!”
Kimberly emphatically praises the 2023 Niagara Karate Championship, saying it was just a wonderful experience where everybody was very supportive of Matthew.
Tom and Kimberly both agreed that Master Hanshi Lawrence enthusiasm towards Matthew added to his motivation and thirst to achieve success. The best instructor they could have asked for, Master Hanshi’s encouragement and Matthew’s unwavering determination brought back the medals that are now proudly on display. Truly a commendable team effort.
When asked how the team came to life, Kimberly explained that about two years ago, she walked in off the street into Rande’s Karate place and simply asked if they taught blind people. Master Hanshi’s reply was that he never had but was not opposed to the idea and was willing to try. Matthew then walked in for a consultation where he had a lesson to see if they could work together. Matthew enjoyed it, they started and then life took its turn.
Master Hanshi added to the story by adding his part. “I had never tried it before. I teach people with Down syndrome, and I also have taught people who were deaf, but not blind. I looked at it and I said to myself, ‘You know what? I’m up to this challenge. Personally, I could learn a lot.’ That’s what I thought. But I know when you teach anyone or anything, the most important thing about teaching is that you must develop a trust with each other. The first time Matt came, and we worked, he kind of got a feeling for me. He probably figured I’m not that bad of a guy after all, right? He explained that the process worked both ways. Just as Matthew learned from him, he himself learned a lot, too. Matthew’s father Tom Killian chimed in with the fact that Matthew steadily worked his way up from the white belt to the green belt.
“Everyone thinks that learning karate is just learning the moves. No. You have to redefine your body in some way. You’ve got to know what you can do, what you can’t do, the things that you can’t do we can work on so someday,” said Master Hanshi. “So we started to do exercise that would allow us to do the karate moves. Like, squats, bending your leg, kick so that those leg muscles are strong enough to raise the leg up”
Unfortunately, as Master Hanshi observed, blindness causes deficits as some of the key human muscles are not used regularly. Examples he gave was kicking your legs as high as you could or raising arms as high as one is able to. So Matthew initially worked on strengthening muscles with Master Hanshi during his one-on-one basis. Balance and spatial requirements were also a large focus in the beginning, both crucial in karate.
According to Master Hanshi, “The results were mind blowing.” Lack of vision meant it was hard to emulate various sequences of attacking and defense techniques. “We had to work on strengthening the muscles so the arms could be raised up high, so if he does get challenged from a head shot or someone trying to harm him by hitting him on top of the head, he has that reflex, that muscle, that power to protect himself. His balance, his coordination, timing, reflex—really, it’s really come full circle.”
Master Hanshi put emphasis on the word “self-defense” which he labeled as a really big word carrying a lot of weight to it. “It really dictates what we do, what we can’t do, where we go, where we can’t go. When I started karate when I was young, I kind of grew up with it. I’d had run-ins when I was younger, and I ended up getting involved. But I can’t imagine not doing this and not having confidence to go where I want to go. But most people don’t do self-defense, so it must be awful for them to not have the confidence to go here or go there. But then you add in a disability such as blindness, it must be really a challenge for them not being sure of things. So, when Matt came in and he said he wanted to learn self-defense, we started with small things. First, your feelings. Because from what I was told, when one of your senses goes, the other senses heighten a little bit.”
These abilities were utilized to attain unbelievable levels in Matthew. The sense of feeling when someone is close to the opponent, the energy, keeping the balance, the mental focus and most importantly the balance so that if someone does come and starts to grab us, we’re not going to get knocked on the ground.
Master Hanshi added that Matthew is currently on a very good schedule and willing to do more. Matthew even practices moves while walking the neighbor’s dog regularly! As Kimberly stated “He will practice his karate moves when he walks the dog. He’ll walk backwards for his balance and his strength. He’ll move his cane up and down and practice walking with his cane.” Master Hanshi explained “In karate, we always like to step back. When we do our defense, we bring one leg back or we move backwards to get our balance and to move around. But unfortunately, when you’re blind, you hardly ever step backwards. So your balance, your coordination, it’s different. So we started to do it in the dojo, and I didn’t tell him this, but he and his mom and his dad started to have him walk the neighbor’s dog backwards.” He laughed: “That wasn’t my idea! I wish I had come up with that idea, but I can’t take credit for that one.”
Conventional teaching is very visual. In Matthew’s case, Master Hanshi successfully developed methodologies to understand techniques and process information pertaining to karate in a unique and unconventional way. He insists “It is a different teaching, but I love learning things, learning how to do things. You never know what life brings you.”