At one point or another, most people experience being stigmatized. Whether it is due to race, gender, religion, socioeconomic class or ability, many people are unfairly marked with specific negative characteristics that can hinder their advancement in many aspects of their life. One such group is those with physical and mental disabilities, who are often stigmatized and labeled as “weak” or “unable.” They are given limited opportunities to advocate for themselves and prove these stigmas wrong.
Working at Yachad this summer, I was inspired by Yachad’s commitment to inclusion, and by my own desire to counteract society’s attitudes toward disability, to design a program for Yachad members. I proposed an accessible and adaptive self-defense class in which the participants would have the opportunity for physical exercise while also learning simple tactics if they’re ever in a situation where they need to defend themselves. I was hesitant when designing the program; I didn’t want to make the participants afraid that they may be physically attacked in the future. In addition, I was concerned that the exercises would be too strenuous or uninteresting to the participants. I was definitely taking a risk with this class, and I wasn’t sure if it ultimately would be successful or not.
As the summer flew by, the once-vague proposal became a real event on the Yachad calendar. I recruited staff, found a great teacher of Krav Maga (a form of self-defense created by the Israel Defense Forces), and began to prepare for the class. The first session focused on the mental aspects of finding your own power and how to protect your own space. The class strayed away from any intense movement or physical self-defense. At the end of the class, the teacher approached me and insisted that he could tell the participants could handle more than we were allowing them to accomplish. This comment made me extremely nervous, because I didn’t know how introducing movements such as punching or kicking would go over. I hesitantly agreed to let the teacher introduce this lesson next week, anxious about how it would unfold.
At the next lesson, I realized that I had completely underestimated the abilities of the participants. They were all eager to engage in the physical activity of the class, something they are rarely given the opportunity to do. They approached self-defense with a positive “can-do” attitude and felt empowered rather than fearful. One participant even said she “[felt] like Wonder Woman!” Another went out and purchased her own self-defense glove to practice with at home.
My preconceived notion that those with various disabilities would have a difficult time participating in this sort of activity showed me the limits of my own understanding of abled vs. disabled, and also demonstrated a larger social need for inclusive activities. I learned just how determined and capable the Yachad members are, and how lacking in regular opportunities like this they are. I realized how important programs like Yachad are to self-empowerment. Without Yachad many of the participants would have a harder time expressing themselves and gaining new skills. Thanks to this experience, my perspective of the world has shifted, and I can better appreciate how others around me can help me grow, and how I can make the choice to help others grow.
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