Martial arts classes teach adults with developmental disabilities about self defense and confidence
by: Jonathan House, Aim High Academy of Martial Arts Instructor John Leitner provides a mark to student Tony van der Zanden while Kevin Dougherty waits his turn. Van der Zanden and Dougherty were the first from the Edwards Center for the developmentally disabled to try out the martial arts classes.

The lot in life of many of those with developmental disabilities is that oftentimes they are told not to yell, not to hit and not to kick.

But for the last 10 weeks, up to 35 clients of the Edwards Center, a local nonprofit that aids adults with developmental disabilities, have been given one hour where all of those actions are entirely appropriate.

Edwards Center Executive Director Jessica Leitner said the free martial arts classes have already had profound benefits for the clients and staff alike.

'This experience has been fantastic for them - building confidence, encouraging exercise, (and) teaching self-defense skills,' Leitner said.

The classes were made possible by a $1,000 donation that Aim High Academy of Martial Arts in Bethany raised for the center. With it, Edwards officials eventually decided to turn around and buy 10 weeks of instruction time at a dramatically reduced price from the academy.

'I know for me it's been the highlight of my week,' Leitner said. 'It's not hard to get infected when you see their smiles.'

Leitner acknowledged that some of the clients' families were initially worried that their new fighting skills might be used against them and their caretakers.

Noting that they have yet to have any such incidents, Leitner argued that the opposite might well be true: The students are able to get out their aggression in appropriate ways and instructors regularly reinforce the idea that violence is used as a last resort and then only in defense.

'To assume that people with disabilities can't contain the information is silly. Of course they can,' Leitner said.

Danny Sikkens, executive director of the academy, said the students are taught as much about the nonviolent philosophy behind martial arts as the movements.

'Attacking is not something that we teach. Defense is what we teach,' said Sikkens, explaining that students were taught hand-release and other self-defense skills.

He added that predators might be more likely to attack those with developmental disabilities and he is glad to give them tools to fight them off.

'Honestly, I hope that they would be able to defend themselves,' Sikkens said.

Confidence grows

The members of the Friday afternoon class have difficulty verbalizing what it is they like about the class, but their huge smiles speak volumes.

'It's good for your body,' client Dennis Livingston said enthusiastically. 'It's good for you.'

'I like it and I like doing it with other people,' agreed client Paula Lane.

Chelsea Weigelt, an Edwards group home manager, said her residents look forward to the class all week and she has seen their confidence and abilities grow by leaps and bounds.

'It's been pretty amazing seeing the difference,' Weigelt added. One of her residents used to complain that he felt like he was falling, even when he was just standing still, she said. Now, he will even get down and do push-ups without those balance problems.

The Edwards Center pioneers were Tony van der Zanden and Kevin Dougherty, who now proudly wear orange belts after breaking a board at a recent ceremony. The two started martial arts classes a year ago and now are integrated into regular beginners classes.

Leitner said that's what she hopes for any of the clients who wish to continue beyond the 10-week trial period - that they can continue on with it.

It might have been intimidating for them to jump into a regular beginners class at first, she said, 'but after doing this for 10 weeks - no problem.'

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