Wheelchair Karate: Attack the Attacker with Kenneth Perry

Editor’s Note: Kenneth Perry from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, contracted polio in 1968 when only three years old. He has some use of his right leg but no use of his left leg, and he rides a wheelchair. When we say a person rides a wheelchair, most often, we mean that the wheelchair is a vehicle for mobility. But when Perry says he uses a wheelchair, that wheelchair becomes a defense tool or an attack tool, because Perry has a black belt in martial arts and teaches martial arts to people with disabilities. Below, we share his perspective of defense on wheels!


Martial Arts Teach Confidence

I was minding my own business one day, and a man came up to me with a knife. He pointed the knife at me and asked me for my money. I broke his arm that was holding the knife. I was in a bar one time down in the Florida Keys, and a drunk was in the bar. For some reason, he didn’t like me being in the same bar where he was and threw a punch at me. I blocked his punch and jabbed him in the groin. As he lay on the floor sobbing, I left the bar.

Often, I know that people in wheelchairs are targets for abuse for no other reason than that they use wheelchairs.

I also realize that criminals feel that people in wheelchairs are easy targets to rob. That’s why I wanted to learn self defense and martial arts. After I began to train, I decided that other people with disabilities didn’t need to have the same fears that I had before I learned American Kenpo Martial Arts. So, I became an instructor.

I didn’t start training in martial arts until I was 33 years old. I would’ve started much earlier than that if I could have found an instructor to teach me martial arts. Someone once asked me, “Why did you think you could do martial arts from a wheelchair?” My answer was and still is today, “I’ve always known I can do anything I want to do.” I went to many different martial arts instructors, but they weren’t willing to try to teach me. Finally, I found an instructor teaching a martial arts class at a rehab center. He was already of the mindset that, “Yes, people in wheelchairs can do martial arts.”

Wheelchair Karate Is For Women Too: See Video from 2014 European Championships:

The form of martial arts I studied is called “American Kenpo” and is an American form of martial arts that traces its history all the way back to a Shaolin temple in China. The godfather of American Kenpo was Ed Parker and is the same form of martial arts that David Lee Roth and Elvis Presley practiced. Kenpo is not about how hard you can hit or how flexible you need to be. Kenpo is a curve/linear motion, because sometimes you move in a circle, and sometimes you move in a straight line. By using those two movements together, you can create a lot of power and dynamic torque. Right now I’m a second degree black belt, and I’ll be testing for my third degree in April, 2016.

Initially, I got into martial arts, as you may guess, as a way to protect myself. The more I studied, and the more I learned the discipline of Kenpo, I drew great strength from the discipline that Kenpo taught. Also, I learned that I could do more things than other people ever thought I would be able to do. For instance, people were amazed that I could balance a tray of food, move my wheelchair and go anywhere I wanted to go all at the same time. Also practicing Kenpo strengthened my core. I could see all these factors were benefitting me physically, mentally and emotionally.

My instructor’s philosophy was and still is that, “to learn is to gain the ability to teach.”

I started teaching martial arts to people with disabilities, because I had read statistics that said 80 percent of women with disabilities had been abused, and many in the criminal element assumed that people with disabilities were easy targets for robbing and abusing. I wanted to alleviate these problems not only for myself but for others too.

Martial Arts Give People with Disabilities Tools to Use When Attacked

I teach a class at the Abington YMCA right outside of Philadelphia that’s free for people with disabilities. The course consists of learning total self defense. I teach how to break away from grabs, get out of holds and subdue attackers. I also teach that you’re not limited by the physical vessel you live in – your body. You’re only limited by what your brain tells you that you can do. I also teach that a person in a wheelchair can subdue any attacker very easily. One of the big advantages that a person in a wheelchair has is that he or she has a very low center of gravity. You can use your wheelchair to block, to trip and to throw good punches.

For someone to strike a person in a wheelchair, the attacker has to sacrifice some of his balance.

2Kenneth PerryAs soon as you understand that an attacker is off balance when he tries to harm a person in a wheelchair, then you can exploit that advantage that you have. A person can’t hit you if you’re in a wheelchair without overextending themselves. If you’re sitting in a wheelchair, an attacker has to punch down, and their punch is somewhat reduced in power, because they have to make up for the distance that your lap makes from them to you. This puts the attacker at a disadvantage.

One of my instructors said, “When someone is attacking you, apply perfect defense until you have enough time to deliver devastating offense.” One of the biggest advantages and one of the easiest punches you can make that has a devastating effect is to the lower body and primarily the groin area. But one of the easiest defenses is when a person is coming to me, either walking or running, and threatens me. I head straight for them, run into them with my chair, make them fall down and create severe pain in their shins.

As they’re starting to fall, their head is in a really good position for me to deliver blows with either punches or elbows. The last thing an attacker expects from a person in a wheelchair, when they’re going after that person, is for the person in the chair to attack them. If you have limited mobility and can get out of your chair and get behind it, you can use it as a shield.

Instead of considering your wheelchair only as a device to move around in, we teach people to think of their chairs as battering rams, shields and if need be, aggressive tools.

For the individuals who use crutches or canes, a big part of martial art teaches people how to use sticks (canes and crutches) to defend themselves or to stop an aggressor. If someone tries to hit you, and you use your crutch to block that strike, your crutch will hurt that person a whole lot more than the punch will hurt you.

Life Lessons Learned Through Martial Arts

Even though I’m a sensei – a teacher – I go to martial arts class three to four times per week to learn more, so that I can be a better teacher. I’m asked, “What are your goals for learning martial arts?” I’ve learned that my goals are different as I’ve grown older. Initially, when I was younger, my first goal was being able to conquer martial arts skills, because most people thought I couldn’t. But now, my goals are to one day be able to teach more people with disabilities what I’ve learned. Possibly, I’d like to write a book about how people with disabilities can learn to defend themselves using martial arts techniques, exercise more and learn more.


I’d also like for people with disabilities to learn the life lessons I’ve learned through martial arts training. I’d like to prove to people with disabilities that they:

  • can do more than they’ve ever thought they could do;
  • don’t really know how much potential they have to do many things that they’ve never dreamed possible;
  • can be shown how many barriers they can tear down if they continue to practice and not give up;
  • can be taught to understand what they’ve learned from martial arts and how to use those later in life; and
  • understand that all these life lessons are part of martial arts training.

Besides teaching at the Abington YMCA, I sometimes teach at the Moss Rehab Center, the Magee Rehabilitation Hospital and the Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital.

fall-down-karateWheelchair Karate: Martial Arts Help People Get Stronger and Gain Mobility

My first experience with martial arts was when I found an instructor teaching American Kenpo at a rehab center. Today when one of the rehab centers wants to help one of their patients to get stronger and to gain mobility in a different way, the center will call me and ask me to work with and teach the martial arts techniques that I’ve learned to their patients. We can take martial arts moves and use them to help someone re-learn how to walk or how to walk better. We teach certain moves that help people be more comfortable in their wheelchairs. Martial arts offer more than the ability to protect yourself.

1Kenneth PerryWe had one student who had a traumatic brain injury, which led to spasticity on his left side. He also had balance issues and memory problems. He told me, “I’m not going to be able to learn defense techniques. I don’t have very good balance, and I’m not going to be able to extend my left arm.”

However, after two years of training with us, he was promoted from white belt to yellow belt. He gained 3-4 inches of mobility in his range of motion on his left arm, and he was able to learn multiple six or seven steps self defense techniques. So, learning Kenpo was very therapeutic for him. It also gave him a lot of self-confidence and helped him overcome the fear he had of going out into the public. He knew that he could take care of himself in any situation that might arise. There’s an old saying, “People who want to start trouble are no match for people who are ready for a troublemaker.”

Martial arts enables you to be ready for the people who want to start trouble with you.

Also, we teach quite a few ladies. The statistics I know say that 80 percent of ladies with disabilities are sexually attacked. When they go out into the world, they want to feel safe and know that they can handle any situation that may occur. I’ve been teaching martial arts for 20 years, and I’ve had several female students who have had boys try to impose their wills on them, and the ladies have smacked them and immediately have stopped that aggression.

To learn more about what I do, how I train, and how to begin to learn martial arts as a part of your therapy or rehab or to build self-confidence, you can email me at kenperus@yahoo.com. You can see some interesting martial arts techniques that I demonstrate on YouTube. See the video below.

About the Author:

John-E_-PhillipsFor the last 12 years, John E. Phillips of Vestavia, Alabama, has been a professional blogger for major companies, corporations and tourism associations throughout the nation. During his 24 years as Outdoor Editor for “The Birmingham Post-Herald” newspaper, he published more than 7,000 newspaper columns and sold more than 100,000 of his photos to newspapers, magazines and internet sites. He also hosted a radio show that was syndicated at 27 radio stations; created, wrote and sold a syndicated newspaper column that ran in 38 newspapers for more than a decade; and wrote and sold more than 30 books. Learn more at www.johninthewild.com.



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