From Where I’m Sitting

written by Clay Johnson

Hello. My name is Clay Johnson. I was asked by Simo Paula Inosanto to help with the setting up of this page, and I said yes, gladly.

I have Cerebral Palsy. I’ve had it since birth. The Cerebral Palsy I have affects my balance, and the left side of my body slightly. I also don’t have a left ear lobe. All this is a result of being born three months early. Because of my disability, I’ve undergone 30 corrective surgeries from age 6 months to 18 years old. I use a wheelchair to train in, and in order to be more expedient. I can also walk with crutches.

As a child, I didn’t have too many friends, except for adults. When I entered public school in 1967, I was the only disabled person in the school system. I liked school at this time. First grade was fun, and I met a lot of new people, teachers and classmates alike. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Eaton, was very supportive and didn’t treat me any differently than the other kids.

As I said earlier, I have had a lot of surgeries over the years. I underwent two, sometimes three surgeries a year. During my second grade year, I missed a lot of school because of this. I did pass second grade, but because I had missed so much school that year, it was thought I should retake that grade. I didn’t like the idea. First, I was losing the friends I’d had since first grade. Second, I was a kid and didn’t understand, if I passed, why do it over?

In the long run though, it was the right thing to do. This was around the time I started feeling different. I began to get picked on a lot, and called names. The class bullies told me I’d get beat up if I didn’t give them my milk and lunch money. This went on until I got to high school. Even in high school I was picked on and made fun of, but not as much. I didn’t go out, or go on dates then.

When I was in 10th grade, I took Driver’s Ed, like everyone else and passed it, but the school didn’t have a car at the time with hand controls in it. The only reason I can drive today is that my mom made them get hand controls put on the car when I was 18, so I could do the behind-the-wheel part of Driver’s Ed and finish it, and get my driver’s permit. The school system learned not to make my mom mad!

My interest in martial arts began when I was ten years old, but because of my inability to kick, I was not accepted at the local martial arts school that was in our area at that time. Ten years later, when I was in college, my interest in martial arts was rekindled because I was taking administration of justice courses. I thought that having some martial arts experience would be beneficial to being in law enforcement. At that time, I found a local Tae Kwon Do instructor named Jimmy Mays. I trained with Mr. Mays for approximately one year, at which time, he was involved in a traffic accident that left him unable to teach for a long time.
After searching for quite some time for a school that might be willing to teach a person in a wheelchair, I found a teacher who took a chance on me. In 1983, at the age of 22, I started training in American Freestyle Karate under Eddie Thomas of Salem, Virginia. I travelled to Salem once or twice a week to train with Mr. Thomas. When I started to train under him, I was very shy about being in public. Eddie noticed this, and eventually had me doing demos and competing in tournaments, and it was great fun. I got to meet new people. Once again, I was the only disabled person competing at that time, and there were no handicap divisions in these tournaments, so I competed with other able-bodied people. Sometimes I did well, and placed. Other times, I didn’t. Every once in awhile, I would hear that some guys I was competing against complained that I should have my own division, because I guess they thought the judges felt sorry for me and gave me a trophy. That would make me mad, and I would put my anger into my kata, or form, and end up beating them sometimes, not often, but sometimes. I would smile to myself and think, See, I’m as good as you are. As a result, I gained a lot of respect from the other competitors and black belt judges.

In 1986, I was named Karate Review’s Man of the Year. “Karate Review” is a Richmond, Virginia based magazine. I thank Mr. Thomas because he took the time to train me during countless hours of working on forms and sparring. I love sparring and lots of punching, and though I can’t kick, I took the time to learn kicking skills. After 5 years, I received my first-degree black belt on October 29, 1988, and received my second-degree black belt 3 years later on October 26, 1991.

On March 1, 1987, Mr. Thomas opened the Clifton Forge branch of American Freestyle Karate. This started my martial arts teaching career. I was Mr. Thomas’ assistant instructor and school manager for 3 years, and I did this on a voluntary basis, just to learn how to teach and run a school. Unfortunately, since Clifton Forge is such a small town, the school closed on December 31, 1989.

After receiving my black belt in 1988, I became interested in learning something new, and after searching, I heard from a friend that Sifu/Guro Dan Inosanto gave seminars in the Charlotte, North Carolina area once a year. So on April 1, 1989, I attended my first seminar with Guro Inosanto. I was very pleased that Guro Inosanto and Simo Paula Inosanto took the time to help me with several techniques, even getting a chair and seeing how a technique might work from a seated position. After the seminar, my passion became the study of Filipino martial arts and Lee Jun Fan gung fu/jeet kune do concepts. The reason I really liked the Filipino martial arts was that the use of weaponry gave me reach and better coordination on my left side. After the seminar was over, I remember Eddie telling me to have Guro Dan sign my copy of his book, The Filipino Martial Arts. I said, “No, way! He’s a living legend.” But I did go up, and he signed it for me. He told me to keep working out hard and he hoped to see me again.

At that same seminar, Simo Paula gave me a business card for the Inosanto Academy. I called Simo Paula every once in awhile to check on upcoming seminars in the area, and to ask her questions. I know I must have bugged her to death! I did ask her one time if she or Guro had trained anyone in a wheelchair besides me, at the Academy. I told her I was interested in maybe becoming an instructor under Guro Dan one day. She told me that I could do it if I worked hard. It could take years, but keep training. At other seminars, Simo Paula always encouraged me to try new things that I hadn’t done before, like shoot wrestling, Silat, and training on ground that I didn’t really like, but I train in it more now.

Also, in October of 1989, I attended a Thai boxing seminar in Charlotte, North Carolina, taught by Adjarn Chai Sirisute. I did not go to the seminar to train, but just to watch. Adjarn Chai informed me that I would be training. I did, and I really enjoyed it. As a result, I started training in Thai boxing along with the Filipino martial arts/Jun Fan gung fu/jeet kune do concepts.

After I completed these seminars, I started training with Guro Rob Kelly from Charlotte, North Carolina in January of 1990. Once a month, I travelled to Charlotte and trained with Guro Rob. The reason I only trained once a month was because Charlotte is 4 hours away from my home. My training with Guro Rob was very different that what I had done in karate, not better or worse, just different. Where Mr. Thomas was very flamboyant, Guro Kelly was laid back. From Rob and his training partner, Doug Braffford, I learned how to handle myself better in a real fight. I used different types of weapons, single stick or sword or double stick or double sword, single knife and double knife and stick and dagger, along with boxing and trapping and joint-locking skills. I love medium-contact boxing and full-contact stick sparring with gear on. It is so cool! Being an instructor in karate, I asked Guro Kelly if it would be possible for a disabled person to become an instructor in the arts that Guro Inosanto taught. He said yes, but it might take several years of training. I trained with Guro Rob from 1990 to 1996, at which time, he went to school to become a nurse, and he did not have the time to train me anymore. To me, he is still one of my teachers, and so is Doug Brafford. I owe them a lot.

Also in 1990, I started working out with Chip Reves from Radford, Virginia. We would get together once a week to train, and we would also go to seminars together. Today, Chip and I still get together to train every few months and travel to seminars. Chip is one of my best friends.

So, I decided to give it a try, and after several years of training in these arts, I received instructorships in them. They are as follows:

* Second-degree black belt in American Freestyle Karate
* Apprentice Instructor in Filipino Martial Arts and Jun Fan Gung Fu from July 1995 to July 2001
* Apprentice Instructor in Muay Thai, Thai Boxing (1993)
* Associate Instructor, Filipino Martial Arts (2001)
* Associate Instructor, Lee Jun Fan Gung Fu/Jeet Kune Do Concepts (2001)
* Senior Associate Instructor, Lee Jun Fan Gung Fu/Jeet Kune Do Concepts (2007)
* Senior Associate Instructor, Filipino Martial Arts (2007)
* I am the first physically disabled person to be certified under Sifu/Guro
* Dan Inosanto and Ajarn Chai Sirisute in their respective arts.

Currently, I have my own American Freestyle Martial Arts Academy in Covington, Virginia. I have helped several students to achieve black belts in American freestyle karate. I have trained several of my students in what I call my multi-arts curriculum. My goal with this page is to help other disabled people become interested in the martial arts, and help the ones who are already involved in the martial arts to become better.

If anyone would like to contact me with comments or suggestions, please e-mail me at

I would like to thank the people who helped me get to this point:
My parents
My girlfriend, Kimlee Reid
My teachers: Guro Dan Inosanto, Ajarn Chai Sirisute, Eddie Thomas, Rob Kelly, Doug Brafford
Future contributions will be added by: Glen Leonard, Ken Chun, Joe Singleton.
And a special thanks to Guro/Sifu Dan Inosanto and Adjarn Chai Sirisute. Also to Simo Paula Inosanto. Without her support and encouragement over the years, I would not be doing this web page.