More Power to the Disabled : Self-Defense Project Gives Handicapped a Fighting Chance


Sharon Kawai looks tiny and helpless in her wheelchair, an easy mark for muggers.

But when her instructor, Philip Axelson, lunges at her, she moves her hands and arms with surprising speed and dexterity.

Kawai quickly deflects Axelson’s arms, then twists one of his wrists, forcing the 6-foot-tall, 210-pound man to his knees, and thrusts her fingers upward to his eyes.


The danger to her may be make-believe, but it simulates a terrifying real-life, worst-case scenario for Kawai and others who are physically handicapped.

Although Kawai has never been attacked, she had some close calls years ago and knows only too well the stories told by other disabled people who were victims of muggings, beatings and rapes.

“We realize this fear of being a crime victim is felt throughout society. But people with disabilities feel it even more because we are far more vulnerable,” explains Kawai, a physician who is medical director of rehabilitation services at St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton.

But the new St. Jude-sponsored self-defense project, the first of its kind in Orange County, seeks to show that many physically handicapped people, including paraplegics and the visually impaired, can indeed defend themselves effectively with basic martial-arts tactics.

The objective, says Axelson, a fifth-degree black belt expert, is to help provide the disabled with a sense of “calm and confidence” and “a fighting chance” in situations that can be dangerous, sometimes life-threatening.

Even so, the 43-year-old Kawai, who was born with spina bifida and has lived most of her life on crutches or in a wheelchair, is still astonished.

“Until I started training several weeks ago with Philip, I never imagined (self-defense) was remotely possible for us,” she says. “I thought we didn’t have any kind of a chance, that we were totally helpless in an attack.”

To Kawai and others in the disabled community, including those connected to Orange County’s Dayle McIntosh Center, the need for self-protection programs is overwhelmingly clear.

There are no government statistics on the numbers and types of crimes against the disabled--including the mentally handicapped--according to the National Council on Disability and the California Attorney General’s Commission on Disability.

But specialists on disabled issues argue that studies have pointed to a profoundly disturbing trend: Disabled people apparently comprise the highest-risk group as victims of violent crime.

“People with disabilities are four to 10 times more likely to be targets of attacks than people in the general population,” says one leading researcher, Los Angeles psychologist Nora Baladerian.

One of the most common attacks--robberies--often take place in parking lots or on wheelchair ramps in front of houses. The victims of sexual assaults include women in wheelchairs or on crutches. Disabled people have been severely beaten in what authorities depict as hate-crime attacks.

In this bleak context, advocates for the disabled--noting the success of similar martial-arts classes for women--have urged establishing self-defense programs for the disabled.

While the number of classes for the disabled, including some given in the Los Angeles region, have been few and far between, supporters say the efforts have proven worthwhile.

“The concept really works, if the (disabled) student is serious and willing to stick with it, because martial arts is a very difficult learning process, even for the able-bodied,” says black-belt instructor Ron Scanlon, who has taught the disabled, including paraplegics and brain-damaged people, since 1986 at the Casa Colina Centers for Rehabilitation in Pomona.

The 34-year-old Scanlon, who teaches from his wheelchair, is himself a dramatic role model. Although he is a paraplegic--paralyzed since a childhood accident--his activities include basketball and water-skiing, and for 17 years he has specialized in kung fu and other martial arts.

Some of his disabled students joined the program because they had been victims of robberies and other attacks, he says. And one of his previous wheelchair students, a young woman, effectively used counterattack tactics she had learned in the class.

“A man grabbed her from behind and tried to pull her blouse off,” Scanlon recalls. “But when she spun her (power-operated) chair around, the movement caught the man off guard and he was backed up against a wall. He was so startled he just took off, running down the street.”

The first St. Jude-sponsored class, which begins Sept. 9 at the Sequoia Athletic Club & Racquetball World complex in Fullerton, will be geared to eight wheelchair-bound trainees (the later six-week sessions will be open to other physically disabled as well).

Although instructor Axelson is able-bodied, he brings a personal perspective--and sense of admiration--to the Orange County project: His father, a polio victim, is a quadriplegic.

“Whenever I saw paraplegics play basketball or tennis or some other sport, I became more aware of their real abilities--not their disabilities,” says Axelson, 34. “Some of them would fall out of their chairs, then pull themselves back up. I saw what they could handle. I saw that they weren’t afraid of the challenge.

“OK, these wheelchair students can’t kick. They can’t duck and weave. But they can use their fists and arms very effectively. They have strengths that we can explore and utilize, as well as the element of complete surprise,” Axelson says.

Students are taught not only classic deflecting arm and hand movements--to put an attacker off balance--but also to strike the areas of an attacker’s body that can be extremely painful, such as the eyes, throat and groin. Even the power-operated wheelchair can be slammed into the attacker.

The overriding principle is another classic martial-arts dictum. “Above all, our students have to learn to keep calm, to not panic,” Axelson says, “because they may have only split seconds in which to react decisively--to discourage and surprise the attacker.”

Richard Branderfine, 34, who is in St. Jude’s physical therapy program, plans to join one of Axelson’s classes.

He already knows the physical and mental values of martial arts. He had practiced karate and judo for years before he suffered a spinal-cord injury two years ago.

Just two months ago, Branderfine joined a wheelchair racquetball group. And now he’s ready to take on St. Jude’s classes in self-defense.

“Sure, it’s mainly the crime factor. You don’t want to be so vulnerable. You don’t want people to think you’re such an easy target. You want to be able to protect yourself and the people you love,” he says.

But joining the martial arts class is also a matter of helping to restore self-esteem.

“You have to show other people--and yourself--that you’re the same person,” Branderfine says, “and that no amount of injuries is about to change that.”

Regular weekly classes will begin Sept. 9 at the Sequoia Athletic Club & Racquetball World complex in Fullerton, where Axelson is martial-arts supervisor. For registration and other information, call St. Jude at (714) 871-3280 or Sequoia at (714) 961-0400.