Tag Archives: writing disabilities

So, this isn’t exactly a writing question, but I’m not sure where else to ask. Is it at all possible for someone with chronic wrist pain, such that they can’t take impacts on their hands for any significant length of time, to still learn a martial art? And if so, what martial arts would be best, like ones that focus more on kicks or grappling?

There are students with all sorts of disabilities who are training right now. So, don’t let that stop you.

I’ve worked with martial artists who had a variety of health issues, from those recovering from cancer to eighty year olds training for their black belts. I know of students in other programs ranging from blindness to deafness to only having one arm. Lots of kids with glasses train, and take their glasses off for sparring. One of my training partners for my third degree test was a woman who’d recently recovered from a stroke and had specific health concerns we worked around. There was a certain pace she needed to train at, which was fine. Master Reyes was upfront about it with me when he assigned me to work with her, and she was upfront about it with me. She passed her test by the way.

It is very common in martial arts schools to have students who have specific health concerns, chronic pain, and injuries. It is part of the job of the instructors at these schools to develop work arounds together with their students.  Whether the instructor needs to keep an eye on the time because one of the kids you’re training needs to take their meds during your class. These are all issues that can be worked out. (Consider the number of geriatric students who come in on the regular. There are quite a few.)

As martial arts instructors, we are legally obligated to care for our students when they’re on our floor. (And we care about them because they’re family.) You’ll find plenty of teachers who also have or have had injuries whether they’re permanent or not. One of my master’s had a blown out knee from a gymnastics injury, he was thirty years old and he limped around the floor.

People of all ages, all dispositions, and all backgrounds come through a martial arts studio’s door. Sometimes, they’re people with chronic pain, sometimes they have heart issues, sometimes they’re diabetics. 

A healthy body is not a necessary requirement for recreation the same way it is in the military or the police. In a healthy martial arts school, you will find instructors who are more than happy to work with you and find solutions that fit your needs. Unless you take a boxing-type martial art like Kickboxing or Muay Thai (and even then), you will be hitting air 90% of the time.

It’ll take time to work out your limits and to find alternative options. However, it will be up to you find those limits. Stay in touch with your doctor. Over time you will learn how to discern between good pain and bad pain, and you’ll be better able to moderate what you can do and how long your participate. It’ll also be up to you to keep your instructor updated.

As for which martial art would work best, I’d actually advise you to start with what you want to be learning (90% of success begins with interest) and work your way around to finding a studio in your area who’d be willing to make the accommodations you need. Those are the people you want to be entrusting your safety to. Those men and women are the good beans. Work with the people who want to work with you towards your success.

When you have a disability or chronic pain here’s what you do when looking for a school:

1) Start with a martial art that interests you.

There’s absolutely no reason why your disability or injury should stand in the way of you learning what you want. I guarantee there is a school out there full of martial arts masters who’ll become a second family to you. So, you should start with what you want. Want to fight like a ninja turtle? (I did when I was five, okay.) Run over to imdb.com or somewhere similar to figure out what the martial arts used in the movie were. Once you have that in hand, go to the internet and look up videos on the Tube. Want to study that? Great! To Google!

2) Do research over what is available in your area.

This is the tough part, your choices are going to be limited based on what’s available and feasible to reach. You may not find what you want available in your area. Google for the local martial arts schools in your area (this goes faster once you have a beat on martial arts you want), and see what comes up. Find one you like? Read the reviews, and make sure to look them up on other review sites like Yelp. Make a list of several (yes, several) you’d be interested in. Always have backups in case the first doesn’t work out. You’re probably going to want family schools, but go with what you want. You’re a customer, and if you sign up, you are going to paying them to provide you with a service. Keep that in mind.

3) Make the call

Once you have the schools and the numbers, give them a call. Most martial arts schools have someone working the desk and reception while the instructors teach. This is the person who makes the appointments and handles the gear.

Ask them if it’d be possible to visit the school, make an appointment, and look in on a class. (You don’t need to be upfront about your needs yet.) This is a common practice for students scouting out schools, so no need to be shy. I recommend looking in on an adult class as it’ll be easier to talk to those students after.

Remember, this is a business so they’re going to try to sell you. If you get easily flustered remember to write up and bring a list of questions to ask that you wrote up beforehand.

4) Look in on a class

Before you sign up for the first lesson, look in on a class first. Half the success of any martial arts program is going to be how well you sync with the people who are going to teach you. Watching a class lets you scout out an instructor’s teaching style and talk to the students without pressure. Come a little early so you can watch the students file in, how they interact with each other, and the warm ups.

Think about it like dating. You want a match who works for you.

The general feel and attitude of a good school is one that is relaxed. The teacher is in good spirits, humble, and explains easily. The students look happy when they’re on the floor, they’re in a good mood, social with each other both before and after class, and everyone is generally happy. They’re focused when they’re on the floor. Students who are happy with their school will try to sell you on it if you ask. They’re enthusiastic! You are looking for a warm, friendly, relaxed, and happy environment.

Trust me, you’ll know it when you see it.

You don’t want to be in a school that’s controlling, where the instructor is uptight, angry, or yells at their students. If they’re prideful or act like the source of all wisdom, then you don’t want to be there. You don’t want a place where the students seem unhappy. If you walk into a place like this, leave. You don’t have to bring up your health issues. Know it’s not for you. Look elsewhere.

5) Talk to the instructor

Whoever you talk with on the phone will probably have told the school’s owner or instructor that you’ll be there, so don’t be surprised if they seek out out either before or after the class. If they don’t and you like what you see, introduce yourself. Express your interest and ask if you can set up an appointment (either now if you like it) or at a later date where you can talk more. Let the instructor sell you on their school.

You can either bring up your health issues at this point, or later when you talk to them again. See what they say. It is important to be upfront about it because whoever you will be training with values your health and safety. That is part of their job. Do not forget it.

You will, probably, find plenty of instructors who’ve worked with students that had health issues before. They’re either going to say thanks but no thanks, (if that’s the case, look elsewhere, you want the masters who want you) or they’re going to ask you some questions about your specific needs.

If you decide you like this person and their school, make an appointment to take the first beginner’s lesson. (This is usually free! Sometimes, you get a free gi too! Heyo!)

6) Take the First Lesson

What it says on the tin. They may ask you about your needs again, if they don’t remember or don’t bring it up then remind them. Anyway, take the lesson, see how you feel.

Like it? Like the price package? Yay! Sign up.

Don’t like it? Repeat steps 2-6 with another school.

7) Double Check With Your Doctor (Bonus, Important Step)

I’d double check your needs and discuss this course with your doctor in step 2, but do it again anyway. The school may ask for your medical documentation anyway, and you will, of course, need to sign a waiver. Have a list of everything that might possibly go wrong and what the signs are when your wrists have had too much. Give it to your new instructors, they will put it in your file and reference back to it over your time spent training with them.

8) Start Taking Classes

You’ve made it to Step 8. The last step. The big kahuna. Enjoy your new martial arts life. Remember to keep working to build the bond of trust between you and your teacher. Don’t be afraid to bring up your needs and remind them if they forget.

When I was a little bean, I broke my leg. During the latter half of my recovery after I finally got off the crutches, I still had specific activities I couldn’t engage in. I went back to my martial arts school, and started training again. I went from not being able to run (so I had to do other exercises when everyone else did) to not being able to jump (No jumping till June) until I was finally free. (”You can’t jump yet, right?” “No, busabumnim! I can jump today! I can jump!”) My instructors were with me every step of the way, easing me (twelve year old bean) back into it so I could test for my black belt the next year. It was a slow process, but it happened.

In the right school where you feel comfortable and trust your teachers, it’ll be the same for you. There’ll be things you can do, and things you can only do a little, and maybe things you can’t do at all. That’s not a mark against you.

The most important thing here is honesty. Your limitations are not insurmountable. A good school with good teachers will figure out how to work around them, and if you sign on that is what you will be paying them to do.


To my martial arts followers, please leave enthusiastic recommendations of your school and your master in the reblogs or comments so our Anon friend here gets an example of what to look for in their search.

Thank you!


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Hey just found this blog its Amazing! Thanks for existing! Can i ask you for some pointers? I have a character born without an arm and im trying to figure out his fighting style. He’s physically fit and heavily trained. Any advice?

As a writer, you need to know how something works before you start trying to break it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s guerrilla warfare against an oppressive regime or a hand to hand duel. You need to know what the pieces are, and what they’re used for. This is doubly important when writing about or crafting characters with disabilities because the status quo has a direct effect on them and their existence. Most of the time, they must come up with alternate solutions.

You can’t develop alternate approaches for a character with one arm when you don’t know why both arms (and hands) are important in martial combat. Think of your character as an ingenious problem solver. He looks at the status quo rules with a new set of eyes, determined to find ways in which they can be beaten, adapted, and overcome.

You can’t write a rebel if you don’t know the rules. You can’t think outside the box if you don’t know what’s in it. Start with the status quo, establish what it is, then expand outward.

I have two rules whenever setting out to write a character with any disability (mental or physical).

First: Have a firm grasp of your setting and the types of combat, including culture and standard requirements such as with a military that you wish for your disabled character to be taking part in. Essentially, the world as it is for someone who is considered defacto “normal” by the mass majority of its citizenry i.e. nurotypical or able-bodied.

This is the world your character will inhabit. If you want to understand a character who is outside of what the vast majority consider normal, you need to start by determining what that normal is.

You can’t answer the question of “what is combat like for a character with one arm?” if you don’t understand on a basic level the function of arms in combat.

You can’t answer question about their experiences if you don’t know what the attitudes are toward able-bodied combatants even before we get to a disability. If you want to write a character who is a soldier but only has one arm then you’ll run up against questions like, “how do his buddies feel about going into battle and entrusting their lives with a one armed guy?”

Those questions are based in societal perceptions about disability. Now, there are plenty of real live human beings throughout history who have adapted their disabilities to suit their needs, survived, and thrived.

Yet, you will still find plenty of “able-bodied” people in the world who see disability as an insurmountable obstacle. Just like any number of men will say that women can’t fight, even though there are women everywhere from professional fighting to sports to law enforcement to military. Perception and reality are different, but often perception informs how we view and see ourselves, and what we believe to be possible.

The beast of fiction relies on established rules and all outsider characters in fiction rely on the author having a firm grasp on social conventions to communicate what exactly it is that they are defying.

You can’t craft solutions if you don’t know what the problem you’re trying to adapt to is. As a writer, you need to figure out how a character fights with two arms, two hands, two legs, two feet and why all the appendages are important before you move on to how they fight while missing one.

Second: Understand the limitations of the disability. What can the person do? What can they not do? How does this conflict with the expectations created for the “normal” or able-bodied who also participate? How it affects the character’s life. The perception of them by the others versus their perception of themselves.

You can’t skip the portion of “learning about combat” and go straight to “how disabled person fights” because, well, it doesn’t work like that. In addition, you won’t gain any appreciation for the level of work involved, the ingenuity, creativity, out of the box thinking, and general guts it takes to blatantly challenge social convention.

You’ve got a character who has to learn how things are “supposed to be” then adapt everything out and come up with strategies to beat what is considered to be, by most people, an insurmountable disadvantage.

They’ve got to find other characters in their desired field who are willing to teach them, work with them, and devise new ways of approaching combat/their martial art.

This is not an automatic assumption. Those people, just like the people who do in real life, will take on the social stigma and more than likely the accusation that they are just sending the protagonist out to die.

The infantilization of the disabled is very real and such a character requires a support network of those willing to assist them. Training in martial combat requires a team of people. A master and those willing to submit themselves to be practice dummies while the student learns.

It’s going to take a lot of trial and error on their part because this sort of training doesn’t come prepackaged.

And you, yes, you are going to have to most of that research and lay the groundwork yourself.

The fighting style doesn’t matter, except when it comes to the setting, timeframe, availability of the training, and the requirements of the job.

Plenty of people of all shapes and sizes get into martial arts, martial combat, professional fighting, etc. These people do so out of interest, not based on what is statistically relevant. If you’re looking at training in martial arts based off of “what’s best for my size and shape” then you’re going about it wrong.

When writing a character with a disability, you’re going to be doing the vast majority of the work by yourself. There are real life examples to draw from, which I will get to below, but you and you alone are going to be responsible for your research. There is no handy, easy chart or common martial art specifically developed to be suitable for a character with only one arm.

The character trains in and adapts their chosen martial style to suit them, developing strategies to deal with their opponents. In this way, they are just like every single other person on the planet. It’s just more obvious and therefore, more difficult. Especially when you, the writer do not share in that disability and must teach yourself an entirely new way of thinking/looking at the world while also convincing yourself (for the purposes of writing this character) that that other way is your new normal. Instead of wondering what it’s like to be without an arm, you’ve got to forget that you’ve ever had one.

You are going to be doing what you should be doing for any character you write. In this case, the differences are just more pronounced.

If your character cared about “the best way for someone like me”, he wouldn’t be doing this at all. Conventional wisdom would kill his fighting dreams right out of the gate.

You’ve got a character who when the world said “there’s no room prepared here for you.”

He said, “That’s okay, I’ll do it anyway.”

He went out, found someone to teach him, and pursued his dreams in the face of social convention. Those deep desires should be the foundation for how you pick his martial style. Base it off of what he wants, what he wants to be, and what he thought would be the best way to get there.

Don’t think about that missing arm.

In this decision making process, it’s irrelevant. He chose to pursue what he wanted regardless of what conventional wisdom said. His disability is not going to factor in until the time to learn comes.

For example, I have ADD. Born with it, diagnosed in the second grade. Was always considered to be “strange” even before my diagnosis. When I was in kindergarten, KWJN Gary Nakahama and his Palo Alto West Coast Demo team came to my elementary school and put on a presentation.

I was five years old and enthralled. I grabbed one of the flyers they were handing out, carefully stashed it in my backpack, held it in my head until my parents picked me up from afterschool daycare, and begged them to sign me up for classes.

Now, I have three black belts in Taekwondo.

This is the story of thousands of kids all around the world and I didn’t even need to add my mental disability as a qualifier, but I did because we’re talking about disabilities and how, at this stage, they really don’t matter.

The desires this character is going to have and the drive to pursue what they’re going to do come from events in their own life, like anyone else. The specific martial art can be a choice made by chance or research.

Here’s a few more examples.

Nick Newell, born with a congenital amputation of his left arm, wanted to be a UFC fighter and found a gym willing to train him. He was a walk-in. Now, he’s a UFC Champion.

Johnny Tai, a blind man, who already possessed a brown belt in Taekwondo but began training in Krav Maga because his blindness restricted him from participating in competitions.

There are multiple other examples of other martial artists with disabilities who sought out training, either because they wanted to defend themselves, because they were interested, because they wanted to do competition, because they wanted to be on TV, the list goes on. The story behind why they began learning is ultimately going to be more relevant due to their desires than their disability. Training for martial combat is a long, difficult process on its own. Your character is going to be better off doing it because they love it rather than for some mythical, statistical “better”.

Most people who go in for “better” or “best” often end up miserable and quit.

Research different martial arts. Pick one. Learn everything you can about it. Then figure out how it applies to your character and how your character applies it. As needed check for stories about those with disabilities and martial arts programs which cater to them. Learn about them, and use them to help further your character within their setting.

More on Nick Newell:

Check out Nick Newell for inspiration. He’s a UFC fighter born with a congenital amputation of his left arm. He’s made a pretty good career for himself on the professional fighting circuit.

Now, before you get too excited, remember that combat on the street or on a battlefield has different priorities than combat in the arena. You can’t just take one and slap it onto the other. It’ll work out about as well as Gina Carano in Haywire where they decided to use straight UFC combat for their action sequences with Federal Agents. The problem with UFC combat is primarily it’s perennial focus on grappling. It isn’t about ending fights quickly, like most forms of entertainment, it’s about extending them.

Boxing and other forms of bloodsport are where the misnomer about the amount of time combat takes come from. Street fights are usually under a minute, usually withing the 30 second range. It’s fast and it’s over.

UFC makes its money on butts in the seats. If the fight’s over in a few seconds then the crowd leaves disappointed. One of the major complaints levered against Ronda Rousey, for example, was that she’d end a fight in the first few minutes rather than being a showman.

So, instead of looking at Newell’s fighting as a source of inspiration, my suggestion is to look at Newell himself. Look at his determination to overcome a handicap most people thought to be impossible, even on an amateur level. Look at the way he and his trainers adapted the techniques he used in order to make that handicap (missing half his arm) his strength. Look at how he made his lack of a lower arm part of his fighting style and transformed what most saw as a disadvantage into a championship winning strategy.

However, also look at the resistance to him from other members of the UFC community. His difficulty at getting fights. The way he was occasionally pidgeonholed as a sideshow act, and how many fighters turned down bouts with him because they saw it as a lose/lose situation for them.

Don’t copy Newell.

Instead, research the core of personal dedication which brought Newell success, his strategies, the training devised for him, his approach, and the discrimination he faced. Try to get at the underlying principles of how someone with a disability adapts their techniques to their advantage, rather than trying to force fit them into a preconcieved notion of what a fighter is.

To do that, you need to understand the type of combat that you plan on writing in your novel and what the general rules associated with it are. This is both from a technical/technique standpoint and a cultural one.

Writing disability in fiction requires a lot of research on the simple basis that someone who is disabled is actively influenced by the culture that surrounds them and how it perceives them. A disability is not the total sum of a disabled person’s being, and it’s wrong to present it that way. For them it’s a fact of life, a part of themselves they negotiate around and adapt strategies for. It’s the rest of society at large who try to define a disabled person by their disability.


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I’m writing a teen disabled female police officer who is paralyzed from the waist down and uses a wheelchair. Is the strain of fighting or shooting a gun too unrealistic? If so, what are her options for combat? Thank you!

As a quick forward: this one’s been in our backlog for a little while, so it’s not another response to the recent FBI posts.

The part where she’s a teenage, paraplegic, police officer is a problem. Handling a gun isn’t the issue. While some police agencies will accept cadets who are 18, it’s rare to see one that will allow a cadet under 21 to graduate.

That said, as I mentioned yesterday, there are Explorer programs, which focus on getting teens involved in Law Enforcement as a career. Depending on the agency, their history with an explorer program, and the presence of a sponsor it’s possible you might see a 19 year old serving in a probationary capacity in some local agencies.

It’s worth mentioning, that standard operating procedure for training officers to use breathalyzers is to take half the class, get them completely soused, and then have the other half of the class administer the tests on them. Then, the next week, they reverse roles. The ones who were three sheets to the wind, get revenge to administer the test to their classmates. Obviously, if you’re not old enough to drink… this could raise some minor issues.

The paraplegic part is the other major problem. For a police officer, an injury that paralyzes them is a career ender. They may be able to find a new place in their agency in a support role, such as dispatch, public relations, analysis, possibly even in forensics. Depending on their education, they may even be able to transition into a new career in the DA’s office. If they’re a detective, they could well find work in the private sector as a Private Investigator. But, their days as a patrol officer or detective are over.

This isn’t because they can’t fight. There are quite a few fantastic paraplegic martial artists. Some martial arts are less suitable than others, but nothing about being confined to a wheelchair means you cannot fight.

The same is true of firearms. There are plenty of talented wheelchair bound shooters. If you’ve got a character who is a competitive sport shooter, then being in a wheelchair is something they can work with. Actually, having a character who is in a chair, and carries a gun for self defense isn’t unrealistic. There are people who do exactly that.

Having a teenager who carries a gun, on the other hand, is a bit of a problem. Most states require that you’re 21 before they’ll issue a concealed carry permit. There are a few, like California, Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas, who will issue a CC permit to an 18 year old. But, as far as I can remember, Alaska is the only state willing to issue a CC permit below that (they still require that you’re 16).

The problem for an officer in a wheelchair is, they can’t actually do their job.

Under US law, your employer is not allowed to discriminate against you based on a disability that can be overcome with reasonable accommodations. In a normal position, partial paralysis may not be a serious issue. A partially paralyzed attorney or forensics expert isn’t going to be any less capable of doing their job. The only accommodations needed would be specialized desks and access that’s already guaranteed under the ADA anyway.

For law enforcement officers, the situation is a little different. Potential candidates have their disability weighed on the risk of sudden incapacitation. This is where a partially paralyzed officer becomes a serious liability. It may strike you as grossly unfair, but the inability to pursue a suspect up a flight of stairs is a real concern, and means they cannot do their job. Also, the difficulty in physically restraining a combative suspect is a real concern. Not just for the officer, but also their partner.

I’ll add, this wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen a fictional LEO, who is medically ineligible for their job. The X-Files’ Fox Mulder comes to mind immediately. He identifies as Red-Green colorblind in an early episode, as a plot point. (It’s the reason a government mind control device doesn’t work on him. Yes, this is The X-Files after all.) As you might have guessed, being colorblind is a disqualifying condition for the FBI.

That said, this is one of those cases where, there’s real logistical concerns, that make your character a serious liability to the people around her. There’s a lot of really solid character material for a police officer who was paralyzed in the line of duty, coming to terms with it, and building a new life for themselves. There’s a lot of potential for a teenager who wanted to become a cop, maybe because it was a family tradition, who just watched their future go up in smoke because of a bad slip on the ice. There may even be someplace to use both of those characters in the same story. But, a teenage cop, is a non-start. A paralyzed cop on the job is a liability.

That doesn’t mean you can’t rework this into something else. The pieces you’re putting on the table here could lead to a compelling story. It’s just, I don’t think it was the one you were expecting.


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