written by Clay Johnson
As a disabled martial artist who has been studying the martial arts since 1983, I think motivation, goals and determination must go together.
1. Motivation: I’m often asked by my students and the public what motivated me to start studying the martial arts. Well, that’s a hard question to answer. First of all, when I was a child, I was more often than not told what I wouldn’t be able to do rather than what I could do. When I heard this, it would make me mad, but as a child, there wasn’t much I could do about it. My parents always told me I could do anything I set my mind to do. This may sound silly, but my parents also told me I was no different than anyone else, and they raised me that way. So, in my mind’s eye, I always see myself as able-bodied.
As I have said in an earlier article for this page, my interest in the martial arts started when I was about 10 years old. I was watching a television sports program where I saw a man in a wheelchair who was a double amputee (he had lost his legs) doing a demo in which he was defending himself against 3 or 4 able-bodied men. Needless to say, this impressed me.
In 1971, there was a martial arts school in our town, but I was told I couldn’t join the school because I couldn’t walk or kick. Of course, I was very disappointed. I think the martial arts would have really helped me have a sense of myself, because as a child I didn’t like myself very much. (Even today I still don’t, but I put up with myself!) Also, being the first disabled child in our town in grade school in the mid-sixties and seventies, I was picked on all the time. I think that was one of the reasons I got into the martial arts some ten years later. Another reason was that while I was in college taking classes in hopes of being a police officer, I thought martial arts training would be helpful in that line of work. My Administration of Justice teacher didn’t think I would be able to be a police officer because I was disabled. In the long run, I think he might have been right. As a result, I changed my major to computers and earned a Computer Operations Certificate. Because of my inability to type fast, I was unable to get a job in computers, so the martial arts became my main focus.
That’s how it all started some 21 years ago. During that time, I have trained with some of the very best instructors in the martial arts and have earned instructorships in 4 different arts, including a 2nd degree black belt in American Freestyle Karate under Eddie Thomas of Salem, Virginia, a Muay Thai – Thai Boxing Instructorship under Ajarn Chai Sirisute, an Apprentice Instructorship under Sifu/Guro Rob Kelly of Charlotte, North Carolina and Associate Instructorships in Jun Fan Gung Fu and the Filipino Martial Arts under Guro Dan Inosanto.
Today, what continues to motivate me to train and teach is that I still enjoy the research and learning about martial arts. Also, being a disabled martial arts teacher, I feel I have a responsibility to be better than the next guy because of my disability. At this time, on the east coast where I live, there are 3 other disabled people who are studying Filipino Martial Arts, Jun Fan Gung Fu and Thai Boxing. They are Ken Chun, Glen Leonard and Joe Singleton. Joe Singleton has Apprentice Instructorships under Guro Inosanto. Ken Chun and Glen Leonard are students of Sifu Pat Tray. All of us are friends, and stay in touch with each other by e-mail. We talk often on the phone and see each other at least once a year.
I met Joe in 1991 at a seminar in Maryland. I was so glad there was another physically disabled person there. I remember thinking to myself, Wow, he’s really good. In my opinion, I felt he was better than be at the time, and I still feel that way about it. Joe has better movement than I do with his chair, and he can move his chair and stick or knife as one. Because of my Cerebral Palsy, the left side of my body is not as good as my right. Back when I first met Joe, I thought he would be the first to get his instructorship under Guro Inosanto, but soon after that, he began competing in the Wheelchair Games and the Para Olympics for a number of years in weight lifting, and he was very successful at that. Luckily, I met Joe again in the summer of 2003 at a seminar, and he was as good as ever. When I heard Joe had gotten his instructorships under Guro Dan, I was very happy for him.
I met Ken and Glen in the summer of 2000. I think these two guys are very good martial artists. Again, they are able to move their chairs very well, and have good hand and weapons work. I know Glen and Ken will become instructors in the future: they are that good. These three guys make me a better martial artist and a better teacher. I may have been the first one to get instructorships under Guro Dan, but I don’t want to be the only one.
2. Goals: I had lots of goals over the years – not just in the martial arts. I had to wear braces on my legs for most of my childhood, and they were very painful at times. I had to sleep with them on at night. In the middle of the night, the pain would wake me up. I was finally able to get rid of the braces in my teens. Needless to say, I was very happy they were gone.
Another one of my goals was not met (the one to become a policeman). In the long run, that was fine. My goal of becoming a martial artist, black belt and instructor was met. When I began training with Guro Inosanto, I wanted to be good at the arts that he taught, and I worked very hard for a number of years to make it happen. When I got my instructorships under Guro Dan in 1995, I met that goal. I set another goal that day: to become even better, and one day, get my Associate Instructorships. This goal was met in 2001. Another goal that goes along with these, is that I always want Guro Dan and Simo Paula to be proud of me and glad they embraced the challenge of training me.
I had a goal, or your might say a wish, to go to California and train at the Inosanto Academy. This goal was met in 2002. I got to train there for a week, and it was very cool! I don’t know if I will ever get to go out there again, but time will tell.
I have two future goals: one is to work on becoming an even better teacher now and in the years to come, because the martial arts is the one thing I’m good at. The other is to one day become a Full Instructor under Guro Inosanto.
3. Determination: This is something you have to have to make it in life. If you want to read about determination and courage, check out the other biographical articles on this web page by Joe Singleton, Glen Leonard and Ken Chun. These men should be an inspiration to all martial artists – the able-bodied as well as the disabled martial artists out there. I know they are to me.
I think my determination to succeed in anything I ever tried to do – be it weight training, learning to drive a car, etc., is because I’m very stubborn and a perfectionist when I train and when I teach. When I was a child, I felt I’d gotten a raw deal because I was disabled, but I think it’s made me strong-willed. This has helped me get through life’s challenges, among them, having 32 corrective surgeries, and learning to walk on crutches. I have sort of felt like Humpty Dumpty, who fell off the wall, and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again. I used to dream of being “normal”, but who’s to say what normal is?!!