Kenneth Perry is an imposing figure. And that's before anyone realizes he's a black belt.
He stands about 5' 11 and is a muscular 200 pounds. He's been involved with martial arts for 25 years, teaching in the discipline for 22, and primarily studies the American Kenpo style. Perry is a polio survivor who uses crutches and a wheelchair to get around.
"I decided I wanted to be in martial arts when I was 11 years old," Perry said. "It took me 22 years to find sensei Skip McClurg, who was willing to teach me as a person with a disability."
I was a student in an adaptive self-defense class taught by Perry a few years ago. When I recently saw a couple videos making the rounds on social media of people with disabilities being thrown from their wheelchairs -- one by a police officer, another by a security guard -- they reinforced the lessons Perry taught.
"I'm very motivated as I see crimes committed against people with disabilities, and I know that they're just not equipped to defend themselves," Perry, 59, said. According to him, becoming a teacher was just an expected part of the training. He had other motivations as well. "I got into teaching people with disabilities because there weren't enough instructors to teach them."
Adaptive self-defense is simply modifying typical movements to what an individual with a physical disability can do. Besides the traditional moves, students are taught to use their wheelchairs and crutches as defense mechanisms to escape. For example, a wheelchair user is taught to drive into an attacker first, executing a kick to the knee or other sensitive areas if possible, then to escape.
Perry is the co-founder of the Willow Foundation for Adaptive Martial Arts along with Christopher Gennell. The duo has taught people with various disabilities, including people who are blind, deaf, have spina-bifida, spinal cord injuries, polio, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, and students who are amputees. The list also includes people with developmental disabilities.
"In a lot of ways I'm tougher on my students with disabilities," he said. "I don't want them to get a false sense of security."
I can attest to the fact that the black belt doesn't take it easy on his students with disabilities. He prepares his students for anything that might come from, as he puts it, able bodies. In one of the classes that I attended at a local YMCA the instructor wanted his students to feel a real punch from a potential attacker. The message was sent very clearly -- a disability will not make an attacker less forceful.
"I want to make sure that able bodies see them as capable," Perry said. "I'm very, very clear that if something happens, the person with the disability only has one legitimate shot at defending themselves." He suggests an able-bodied person willing to attack a person with a disability will take advantage of any aspect of the disability. "I want the person with a disability to be able to finish the fight in one fell swoop."
Perry said one of his biggest challenges in teaching came with a large class of amputees. One student had all four limbs missing. "The two of us worked together for a while and we came up with some very effective self-defense for that student," he said.
More recently, Perry was working with a student who has significant balance and flexibility challenges. "We've seen really wonderful results where he's able to extend . . . and use his body more effectively," he said. "We're just outrageously happy with the results we are seeing with him."
A big benefit for people with disabilities learning self-defense can be enhanced self-confidence. "One of the great things is [feeling] you can defend yourself," Perry says.
You feel that you can now enter life on a more even footing with your non-disabled counterparts. I know that I walk down the street and I don't worry about being attacked. I'm very aware and I'm very comfortable with my ability to take care of myself.
When I took Perry's class, I was really just looking for something to do. I wanted to get out of the house a little more, and I thought that if I met a couple new people it would be a bonus. Early on I doubted whether or not the techniques I was being taught would be effective in helping me fend off an attacker.
But as the course progressed, I can honestly say I enjoyed learning the techniques. I actually found myself practicing the movements at times, wanting more of the physicality from the class, and feeling that if necessary I could, in fact, find my way out of an attack safely.
When asked how someone might get started with self-defense if they didn't have access to a class for people with disabilities, Perry offered the following advice. "The big thing is preparing yourself mentally to take whatever challenges are going to be thrown in front of you. That's really the biggest thing you will learn from martial arts -- facing the challenge in front of you and being sure you're willing to do what it takes to get past whatever hurdle life wants to put in front of you."
Perry seems to put those words into action in his own life. Besides being a black belt, he is also an MBA who enjoys scuba diving, skiing, playing tennis, and ballroom dancing.
For video of Perry in action, click here.