Loretta’s Adaptive Sports Expo in West Chester, Pennsylvania

I just attended an adaptive sports expo put on by Loretta Cohen at the YMCA in West Chester, Pennsylvania. I met Loretta while skiing for the second time. She told me that I should attend her expo. I promised I would and I did. I feel very inspired by the whole thing. I prepared a special audio presentation which contains a bunch of the demonstrations and the main presentation. I hope you enjoy.

Adaptive sports refer to sports modified for those with special needs. This includes those blind like me, as well as those in wheelchairs or with artificial limbs, anything special like that. I pretty much specialize in my own disability, so it felt interesting to see others with issues I had never considered. They had wheelchair basketball and hockey, and even ballroom dancing. They had demonstrations of swimming, kayaking, and even scuba. In the room where I spent the most time, they had golf and the thing I came to see, karate.

I went with my Mom, who also has an interest in such things. We met Loretta, who recognized me immediately as her skiing buddy. She signed us in and told us about the different programs. We walked around, and quickly found the golf and karate room.

As soon as I entered, Ken greeted me: “Oh! My favorite disability to work with!” He greeted all of those interested with similar enthusiasm. He got right down to business. I like that.

I took karate as a kid, and some of it sort of came back to me. He jingled some keys to give me an audio cue, and had me block his hand. Next, he showed me how to use my other hand to engage their wrist to enter grappling mode. He then began showing me how to use my cane as a weapon. I have a graphite cane, a very light material, which I prefer. You can use anything as a weapon. This would become an amazing reoccurring theme. The whole time he showed me things, he also demonstrated to his assistant Chris. This guy really took a beating throughout the day.

We explored a few more uses of the cane. First he demonstrated using it to restrain. Then you can do lots of cool things, such as squeezing their throat. Next, he showed how to use it to strike. This does two things. It inflicts damage of course, but it also conveys information. The position of the strike on the cane tells the location of the attacker. Mobility skills transfer perfectly here, using the same skills one would ordinarily use for navigation. Cool class!

He then had to work with an amputee. he would take a different approach for each person, since every disability has unique challenges, and each person has unique needs. For this guy, he said that he would not have a challenge, since he ambulates well, and that they would concentrate on balance. He said to assume that he would end up on the ground, and to use that to his advantage. “Every able-bodied person will have to bend over to beat you up.” Man cannot fight if man cannot stand.

A girl came up to me, who introduced herself as Laura, a volunteer. Ken then came back to me and reinforced using the cane as a weapon. “If someone gets you on the ground, you start poking them with your cane. In their ribs, in their throat, in their head. These things will make people want to run away. Does this make sense?” “Yes.” “I can’t hear you!” “YEAH!” He demonstrated a few things on Chris. This included a clap to the ear, which would make someone deaf.

Next, one of his younger students came in, a girl probably around twelve or so in a wheelchair. “Chris, would you mind attacking her as you see fit?” SHe has a white belt, don’t worry. She successfully defended herself using some chops. “Hit him with the wheelchair.” encouraged Ken. He then showed me a move where you curl your fingers back and strike someone under the nose with the heel of your hand. Badass! “Ooh! Ooh! Ooh! Claw the eyes out! Good girl.” It felt inspiring to see a white belt girl in a wheelchair defending herself, even in a controlled setting. “It’s cool to use whatever accessories you have.” I said. “Exactly. They are part of you.” said Ken.

Laura told me that they also had golfing in this room, so we decided to check it out. I played some golf as a kid as well, but neither of us knew enough to really do anything. Laura plays Rugby. “I could put a golf club in your hand, but I don’t even know how to size it up or anything.” she said. “I don’t even know what that means, so I guess we’re in the same boat. I guess we’ll both learn.” We would have a presentation in five minutes, so the golf instructor didn’t have much time. He referred me to the Middle Atlantic Blind Golf Association. I had heard about them. Maybe this year I’ll check them out. We had to go to go see ballroom dancing in wheelchairs.

We headed over to the gym and waited for the event to start. Mom and I talked about the karate demonstration. I asked her what belt I had, and she said she remembers a yellow belt in the wash. She also said the little girl student looked so cute, and about the same height as when I did karate. We discussed the range of disabilities. Mom saw a lot of wheelchairs and amputees. “You know the guy you were talking to about golf? No legs.” I found it interesting that since I can’t see the other people, I don’t know what disability they have. I wouldn’t have known. Mom reminded me of our trip to the Apple store, where I had a salesman with a prosthetic arm. Laura found me and helped me fill out a survey. Interested in golf and karate and skiing (which ironically they didn’t list) in the afternoon or evening.

Loretta came on and gave a speech thanking everyone and introducing the demonstrations to follow. Ken came up with his faithful assistant Chris. “All I have to say is that a lot of people believe or want to believe that people with disabilities are helpless and great targets, I am here to prove to you today that we are not.” He shut off the mic and began some thumping moves. At one point, he threw Chris to the ground with such a strong grip on his pants, that they ripped. The recording even picked it up! Everyone laughed. Poor guy, but you must admit, it would distract an attacker! After Chris got thrown to the hard gymnasium floor a few times, I think Mom started feeling a little freaked out. I assured her that black belts learn how to take falls. Chris progressed to using a stick, a knife, and with a final warning from Ken not to try this at home, a toy gun. Ken disarmed Chris each time. Everyone applauded, and gave another round for Chris.

Next, they brought up American Dance Wheels, who adapt the sport of dancing to those in wheelchairs. “Ken isn’t always a killer, he’s sometimes a lover.” He would later explain to me that a lot of the same moves he uses in martial arts he also uses in dancing – an interesting duality. I know nothing about dancing. I wondered if learning it would make me more of a gentleman or something. After Ken danced to oldies, the cute karate girl from earlier came up and danced to modern pop music. The instructor showed how dance steps map to the wheels on a wheelchair.

After that, Loretta introduced Scott Brown who demonstrated swimming. He works with the Pennsylvania Center for Adaptive Sports, the same group who has the skiing program. He wanted to do SCUBA too. I would have liked to see that, but unfortunately when we found the pool it had a sign warning us NO STREET SHOES. He also does rowing, a five-time world champion who competed in the para-olympics. He gave an inspirational speech. He didn’t do sports until after his accident, where they became a method of recovery. It got him up and doing things again. He calls adaptive sports the rehab after rehab. This makes good sense. They can only go so far in rehab organizations, then you have to go from there.

Loretta closed by thanking her sponsor, and said to get out and try something! That sounded good so we headed back to the karate room for more action. I saw Laura again, and asked her for the contact info for karate. This didn’t seem apparent, but then she spotted some surprisingly high quality promotional key rings with the name and number. Open Hands Karate. Ken and Chris came back in and we talked about his class. They don’t usually train disabled students separately, which I found interesting. I got private lessons when I took karate as a kid. I needed them. Ken asked about my interests. I mentioned this blog and this article and the fact that I want to start a business to help people with special needs use technology. I excitedly brought out my iPhone and showed him my home screen. Ken said this technology makes him feel more inclusive of people. “There’s a place for me now and in the future. I hate to think of it like this, but a hundred years ago I would have been allowed to die.” “And now we can do more.” I completed the thought. He wondered what we missed out on a hundred years ago. “There’s no telling what’s going to happen next. That’s why I am so excited about it.”

A girl came in, and authoritatively said she came here for martial arts. She introduced herself as Erin, and I learned through Ken’s questioning that she uses a wheelchair due to arthritis. Again, I would never have known, since I couldn’t see her. “We’re not going to worry about what you can’t do, we’re just going to find out what you can.” Ken assured her.

Ken included me by showing me moves, then having her follow me. “Power chairs are fun to maneuver.” she said cheerfully. So now we had a karate instructor in a wheelchair demonstrating moves to a blind person to show to another student in a wheelchair as well. This felt great. He also made comments to Chris about adapting karate to someone in a wheelchair. I always felt impressed how he would adapt the art to the person’s unique disability. He showed us upper, middle, and lower blocks. With me, he showed me my cane’s potential, and with Erin he showed her how her wheelchair acts as armor and can inflict damage. He said she should consider these things when getting her next chair. She said she also plays power hockey. He then showed me how to use my cane as an extension of my arm. This turns blocks into ranged strikes!

He made fun of able-bodies who say that someone with a disability couldn’t learn martial arts. The discussion doesn’t get very far talking to a black belt in a wheelchair. It reminds me of when sighted people complain that they can’t watch a movie because of how it looks. That excuse won’t go very far with me. Now go watch Pi already! “I an Rabbi Cohen. Cohen, like you.”

Ken then asked Erin where she lives. She said past Medford, which I presumed contained Medford Lake. I fell into Medford Lake when my family lived there for a short time. While in a canoe, my Dad thought his four-year-old blind son should feel a lilly pad. He leaned WAY over to try to retrieve one. You can take it from there. Erin came quite a ways just to find out about any adaptive karate in her area. Chris knew of someone, and I wish her the best.

Next, another girl in a wheelchair came in. She has cerebral palsy. He showed her the same thing he showed Erin: if someone messes with you, run their butt over! After dealing with her, he told us three good rules to keep in mind. Man can’t fight if man can’t stand. “We make a liar out of that.” he said to Erin. Man can’t fight if man can’t see. “You make a liar out of that one, but able-bodies believe it.” he said to me. Then, a universal one: Man can’t fight if man can’t breathe. Hit his throat. Cup his nose and mouth. He’ll want to get away from you real quick. Or run them over with a chair or hit them with a stick. Sounds right for me.

He does not advocate this as a philosophy for life, rather a philosophy for making sure his life extends. “Creating the ability to turn on the attitude of being aggressive, and understanding and saying to yourself: I have the right to be, I have the right to my space, and I have the right to live a nice easy life, and you shouldn’t interfere with that. And I have those beliefs in spades.” I pointed out how a lot of this stuff seemed very simple. I know it takes complexity and training, but he knew what I meant. The body can only move in a certain number of ways.

Erin asked him about his specific disability. He said he had polio in 1958. He remembers the night he got interested in martial arts. It happened on the first Friday in September 1966, the night the Green Hornet first aired, and the night he first saw Bruce Lee. It took him twenty-two years to find the right teacher. It took him seven years for him to get a black belt. Now he teaches others.

Another woman named Chris came in, also an amputee, and she also had a cane. We back into some cane combat. I asked if I should buy a heavier cane, and he said that he liked my cane. I have a folding cane, with four segments held together by an elastic band. He demonstrated how to hit someone, then while they recover, pull the cane apart and use the elastic band to choke them. Yes! Her cane has a hook on it, as walking canes do, and he showed her how to take advantage of that. Canes make good weapons, with metal harder than bone. “You don’t want to go to the door of success, you want to go through the door of success.”

After a few more demonstrations the time came to leave. I felt great about the whole thing. We said our good byes, and I went home. I’ve since learned that Loretta will conduct one of these expos on the second Sunday of each month. I have a feeling we will have more fun articles and presentations like this in the future. If you live in the Philadelphia suburbs, check this out! You won’t regret it, no matter your disability. Now I have to look into technology to help people in wheelchairs. I found these cool wheelchair mounts for the iPad, for example. It always feels illuminating to think about other disabilities. I also can’t escape the irony that I wouldn’t have known which disabilities others had because of my own disability. It really makes you think. Now get out and try something fun!