Prodigal Son

written by Joseph Singleton

My name is Joe Singleton. My friends know me by my nickname, Ebbony. I am an athlete, a student, a teacher, a martial artist, and an advocate for the disabled. For more than fifteen years, I have been involved with improving the political, economic, environmental and social issues that are related to persons with disabilities.

I am a Vietnam era veteran with a disability. In 1977, I was serving in the U.S. military when a car accident left me with a severed spinal cord injury and I was paralyzed from the waist down. I spent the next ten years in and out of Veterans Administration hospitals, battling medical problems, while trying to make the transition into permanent disability. Those first 10 years in a wheelchair were extremely challenging, and for the most part during that time, I was a shut-in in my own house. I experienced the worst of post-traumatic disability, including depression, anxiety, feelings of helplessness and thoughts of suicide.

After those first ten years, I finally found an avenue of hope that helped pull me out of the despair brought on by my disability. This path was the martial arts. I began my journey in the martial arts by taking lessons in 1984 with instructor, Will Maier, in Tai Ki Jitsu. In 1987, under Guro Pat Finley, college professor and long time student of Guro Dan Inosanto, I began studying Jun Fan Martial Arts/Jeet Kune Do Concepts as well as Filipino Martial Arts. When I first met Guro Pat, I began by telling him about my limitations as a person with disabilities. He said to me, “Do not tell me what you can’t do. I am only interested in what you can do. We will work together to discover what works for you.”

Since that time, I have continued to study Jun Fan Martial Arts/Jeet Kune Do Concepts and Filipino Martial Arts, as well as other martial arts, including Doce Pares Escrima under Diony Canete. I currently assist Guro Pat with his martial arts classes, and also teach martial arts at various conferences and functions for the disabled. I hope to continue to teach and serve as a role model for the disabled.

I have met many unique individuals during my twenty year journey in the martial arts. My training has been a compilation of dedicated teachers and fellow students who were willing to help me along my path in the martial arts. In addition to Guro Pat Finley, many teachers have selflessly guided me on my journey in the art and philosophy of the Inosanto Academy, including Guro Don Garon, Guro Scott Anderson, Guro Steve Braun and instructor Alvin Chan. Their willingness to share experiences and knowledge has strengthened my goal of making the martial arts accessible to all.

My twenty year journey cannot be fully understood without my expressing gratitude for the 17 years I have spent with Guro Pat Finley, a friend, mentor, teacher and confidante. His guidance has helped make me a disciplined student, a caring teacher, and a well-rounded martial artist.

Also, I will always have the fondest memories of the learning experiences that I had with the most impressive individual I’ve ever met, Guro Dan Inosanto. Guro Dan took me gently by the hand at my first seminar and showed me step-by-step how to parry and strike. This was the first of many invaluable lessons in the Inosanto Academy curriculum. Then came Simo Paula Inosanto, who was the gentle heart that watched over me for so many years. She made me feel like I was always welcome and had come home.

As a martial artist with a disability, I would like to leave my philosophy on the scroll: “If you try, you can; if you can, you will, and if you will, you do.” I am very emphatic when I say that having a disability is a struggle. Yet, any obstacle that attempts to hinder our progress will only build character. I dream of the day when an individual can demonstrate that regardless of physical impairment, nothing is impossible in the martial arts.

I would like to express to my fellow students with disabilities that we are a special group. We have the opportunity to share our knowledge with those who are disabled, as well as with those who are not. Our knowledge and experience must be well-honed to pass on this gift.

My life’s mission has been to be an advocate for the disabled. I have spent many years attempting to improve the opportunities and access availabilities for the disabled. I look forward to a time when the disabled have the unfettered potential to achieve anything they set their minds to, and work to accomplish their goals, whether they be occupational, athletic, recreational or personal.

As a result of my advocacy, I have received the Outstanding Sportsmanship Award, the Howard County (Maryland) Commission on Physical Fitness Student Award as well as many spirit awards. I have earned numerous community service awards. I challenged, and won, a legislative law change that had prevented persons with disabilities from purchasing personalized state plates in Maryland. I am an active member of the Howard County Disability Awareness Project, which regularly presents daylong educational events in local schools.

I attended Bowie State University full time, earning a Bachelors of Science Degree in Public Administration and Political Science. I have earned many awards for my athletic achievements. In the world of athletics, I have earned the title of Olympian. I was selected a weight-lifting athlete on the 1992 Paralympic Wheelchair Sports Team, competing in Barcelona.

As I look ahead to whatever life holds for me, I will view the car accident that disabled me as the crossroad of my life. With my mother’s guidance, I have learned how to take care of myself and how to live independently. I have become an athlete, a student, a teacher, a martial artist, and an advocate for the disabled. I’ve represented my country – both through military service, and as a paralympic athlete. The discipline, perseverance and determination I have learned as a result of my disability and through martial arts training, have helped me to do more and become more than I ever thought possible. I look forward to continuing my martial arts education and hope to be as positive a teacher and example as my own teachers – Guro Dan, Simo Paula, Guro Pat, Guro Scott, Guro Steve and Guro Don. To all these instructors, thank you for your love, your compassion, your teaching and your friendship. I am truly blessed to know all of you.

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