ABCD- Budo for Everyone!

Bruce Lee, Steven Seagal, Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Mr. Miyagi. Well, we can leave Mr. Miyagi out, but on the whole, most people have preconceived ideas of budo being the domain of rough, tough, staunch, and cut individuals. The cool image of the athletic warrior serves as an incentive for many people to start the martial arts, but at the same time it prevents many others from taking that first step into the dōjō.

Of those who have started and continued with their training, how many of you have ever complained about blisters on your feet, aching muscles, or minor injuries to get out of training…? Most of us have at some stage. It is very easy to forget how lucky we are to actually be able to participate in hard training and feel the pain. It’s easier to complain.

A few years ago, I became involved with a group known as ABCD ‒ an acronym for Association of Budo Culture for Disabled. Through this group I became acquainted with a Swedish fellow by the name of Pontus Johansson who serves as the president.

Images of the supreme warrior and pain never really concerned Pontus in his martial arts training. He has cerebral palsy, and has been undergoing an intensive regime of rehabilitation since childhood, and was finally able to walk on his own at age eleven. Before long, his disability intensified and he found himself unable to walk independently.

He took a bold step in undertaking the study of karate from the age of sixteen to supplement his love of swimming and strengthen his body for international competitions such as the Paralympics. He sought instruction in such schools as the Shōrin-ryū, Shōtōkan, Kyokushinkai, Shitō-ryū, and has now been studying Wadō-ryū for over fifteen years. Through his training in karate and other budo arts, he refined his sense of balance, and once again learned to walk unaided. Thanks to these positive experiences, Pontus realised the potential of budo as an effective means for rehabilitation and recreation for other people with disabilities. With this in mind, he started teaching in a dōjō in the north of Sweden, and has dedicated himself to promoting the benefits of studying budo for all people.

Last week (Nov. 26, 2008), Japanese budo powerhouse Kokushikan University held a seminar investigating the potential for teaching budo to the disabled and what everybody stands to gain from active participation. I was present as Pontus’s interpreter. The following is a synopsis of his thoughts on the “paradox” of budo for the disabled.

Is budo participation really possible for disabled people? Of course it is. Pontus is living proof of that, as are over forty of his students in Sweden and countless others spread throughout the world.

“It is very difficult to write a 100% accurate manual that applies to every aspect of this topic because the various types and degrees of disabilities make instruction methodology a ‘case-by-case’ situation…We have found over the years that a ‘one-on-one’ perspective with a group mentality is often the optimum solution.”

Pontus relayed to the interested throng of listeners that some cases are easier to predict than others.

“As an example we could say that a spinal cord injury is much easier to conclude possibilities and abilities than a brain injury. We can model this in the same way we regard traditional kata within budo; with a fixed set of rules we have to think ‘outside the box.’”

When a disabled student joins a dōjō, regardless of what that budo it may be, it is not necessary for the instructor to become an expert in the disability.

“Often in any given situation the best way for me as an instructor and my students is actually training together to find out what works and what doesn’t…The point is to not try and establish what they can’t do, but what they CAN do! Sure, there are some special circumstances that apply, but a disabled student should be encouraged like any other student. There is nothing to be afraid of.”

To Pontus and his students, budo provides a vehicle to “move uninhibited in daily life, and to keep the doctor away… We teach how budo can be an integral part of life and rehabilitation. Shiai is important, but is certainly not the main objective for training.” Apart from the wide range of possibilities for rehabilitation, the real goal, according to Pontus, “is to survive the day and win the toughest battle of all ‒ over the self.”

It is his greatest hope that the need for an organization such as ABCD will fade away as people gradually become more aware that budo is not, and should not be exclusive. Budo is for everyone.