May 28, 2001 -- With a "hi-yai," Ian Vickroy swatted a
red punching pad and grinned. It wasn't the intensity with which the
11-year-old struck the pad that made him proud. It was that he was able to do
Ian and about 25 others are enrolled in a martial arts class
specifically designed for children with cerebral palsy. Some sit in wheelchairs
while they practice their punches. Others stand propped on canes. Spotters
stand behind them to catch any falls.
"This gives us a chance to learn," says senior student
Will Jenkins, who wears a purple belt. "I love it. It's teaching us how to
be stronger not only mentally, but physically."
Therapy in Disguise
After seeing the benefits from her personal training, Jan
Brunstrom, MD, who has cerebral palsy, designed the Fighters With Courage and
Power kajukenbo program to help children build their self-confidence while
improving their balance and coordination.
Kajukenbo was created in 1947 in Hawaii as a combination of
karate, judo, jujitsu, kenpo, and Chinese boxing (kung fu). To advance to the
next belt, students must be able to follow explicit instructions, perform
techniques, and detail the history and origins of the sport.
It's therapy in disguise. Participating in a martial arts class
not only provides students with needed exercise, but strengthens their
independence, increases their stamina, and gives them something to strive for
-- the next belt.
"It's not just the martial arts," says Brunstrom, an
associate professor of neurology and cell biology at Washington University in
St. Louis. "[Students are] motivated to do more exercise because they know
it will make them do better in the martial arts class. It just all feeds into
one another. They're getting therapy, and they don't even know it. The
camaraderie and self-confidence is just huge."
'Any One of These Kids Can Fight'
Black-belt instructors from Gateway Defensive Systems teach the
students tactics and technique. They demonstrate the proper way to punch,
block, and use an escrima stick, a traditional martial arts weapon.
The teachers are encouraging -- but tough -- and are accustomed
to training adults, police officers, and military personnel in defense
techniques. They don't go easy on their younger students, either. If students
forget to say, 'yes, Sifu,' when asked a question, they are ordered to do
push-ups. Those late for class undergo the same regime. Brunstrom always joins
"We didn't want to come here and say, 'Let's teach a
special class to these children," says chief instructor Mike Stempf, a
fourth-degree black belt. "Any one of these kids can fight."
About 10,000 babies born each year in the U.S. will develop
cerebral palsy, according to the CDC. It is caused by injuries to the brain
during fetal development or at the time of birth. Individuals with cerebral
palsy can suffer from loss of movement, hearing, or vision, difficulty with
speech, and seizures. Symptoms usually develop before the age 2 and may appear
as early as three months. Some may experience mental disabilities, while others
suffer none at all.