Martial Arts for Disabled People - A Historical Perspective

By Richard Sison

Over their long history, martial arts have evolved various forms and techniques. A lesser known but significant aspect of this history is martial arts practice for disabled people
Historically, such adaptations have emerged in various cultures and regions, reflecting that disability and interest in martial arts are worldwide phenomena. 
Martial arts enable disabled and non-disabled individuals to physically train, cultivate mental well-being, and foster social connections.

Historical Origins – Ancient China and Japan 

Martial arts practices tailored for disabled individuals have a long history, with accounts dating back to ancient China and Japan. Various sources documented these practices, providing insights into the time's techniques, beliefs, and influences.

Ancient China

In ancient China, records of martial arts techniques were adapted. These techniques focused on using internal energy (qi) rather than physical strength, making them accessible to individuals with different abilities. 

Figure 1 - A part of the Great Wall of China surrounded by trees
Figure 1 - A part of the Great Wall of China surrounded by trees. Credit: .

These records can be found in ancient Chinese texts such as the "Nei Jia Quan Shu" (O’Brien 2004), which documented martial arts practices that emphasized cultivating internal energy for self-defense and health benefits. These practices were believed to be effective for individuals with physical impairments, as they relied less on physical strength and more on harnessing internal energy.

Ancient Japan

In Japan, during the Edo period (1603-1867), there were accounts of a martial art called "Taki-Ryu" that focused on using tactile and auditory senses to perceive and respond to opponents. 
Taki-Ryu was developed by blind and visually impaired individuals and was explicitly designed to be accessible to those with visual impairments. The techniques of Taki-Ryu used to touch and sound compensate for the lack of sight, making it a unique martial art that catered to individuals with disabilities. 
Accounts of Taki-Ryu can be found in historical documents such as the "Japanese Swordsmanship" (Warner & Draeger 1982), which documented various martial arts practices of the time.

Figure 2 - A child without arms training in martial art
Figure 2 - A child without arms training in martial arts. Picture taken by the author.

Adaptations and Modifications in Martial Arts 

More recent adapted martial arts have followed this pattern, using techniques which are heavily reliant on a disabled individual’s strengths. For example, methods that rely on physical strength or agility may be adapted to emphasize balance, leverage, or precise movements, making them more accessible to individuals with limited mobility or strength.

In addition, assistive devices such as canes, braces, or prosthetics may be integrated into martial arts to support individuals with mobility impairments.

Historical Context

Different regions' cultural, social, and historical contexts often influenced the emergence of adapted martial arts practices. In Eastern cultures, martial arts were considered a form of self-defense and a way to cultivate inner strength, discipline, and resilience, which could be particularly relevant for individuals with disabilities who faced societal discrimination or stigma. Martial arts may have empowered and enabled social integration – enabling disabled individuals to overcome societal barriers and gain recognition for their skills and abilities. However, the availability of adapted martial arts may have been influenced by societal attitudes toward disability and the availability of resources and support systems for disabled individuals. 

Figure 3 - A child without arms training in martial arts
Figure 3 - A child without arms training in martial arts. Picture taken by the author.

Evolution of Adapted Martial Arts

Adapted martial arts practices have evolved and developed over the centuries.
In China, for example, "Tai Chi" has been adapted to accommodate individuals with physical impairments, with modified movements and techniques emphasizing balance, flexibility, and relaxation.
The development of disability sports has made significant strides in recent years, with increased recognition of the athletic abilities and potential of individuals with disabilities. One area of interest and innovation in disability sports is the adaptation of martial arts to accommodate the strengths and abilities of disabled individuals. 
Modern training techniques, specialized equipment, and adaptive technologies have meant that disabled individuals have a greater opportunity to engage in martial arts training and competitions.
The development of lightweight and durable prosthetics, braces, and other assistive devices has allowed individuals with limb impairments to participate in martial arts practices with greater ease and mobility. 
Training methods and instructional approaches such as verbal cues, tactile feedback, and modified movements have made martial arts techniques more accessible and adaptable.

Figure 4 - A man in athletic clothes touching his prosthetic leg
Figure 4 - A man in athletic clothes touching his prosthetic leg. Picture taken by the author.

Key Milestones 

Throughout history, the development of adapted martial arts has been shaped by notable events and influential figures. These milestones have contributed to the growth, recognition, and acceptance of martial arts as a viable form of physical activity and self-development for individuals with disabilities.
The establishment of organizations, competitions, and championships specifically for individuals with disabilities, such as the International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports Federation (IWAS) and the Paralympic Games, have provided platforms for disabled athletes to showcase their martial arts skills and abilities on a global stage.
It is crucial to emphasize avoiding harmful representations and promoting inclusive perspectives when discussing adapted martial arts. It is essential to move beyond the narrative of individuals simply overcoming their impairments through martial arts and instead focus on the empowerment, inclusion, and social integration that martial arts can provide.

Richard Sison, the founder of Fight Coop, has over 20 years of martial arts experience in Boxing, Muay Thai, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. With a passion for sharing his knowledge, Richard created Fight Coop to connect and promote mental health awareness and inclusion. His expertise in sports nutrition and understanding of the mental and emotional benefits of martial arts make Fight Coop a valuable resource.


O’Brien, J. (Ed.). (2004) Nei Jia Quan: Internal Martial Arts Teachers of Tai Ji Quan, Xing Yi Quan and Ba Gua Zhang. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.
Warner, G., & Draeger, D. (1982) Japanese Swordsmanship: Technique and Practice. Boston: Weatherhill.

Recommended citation:
Sison, Richard (2023): Martial Arts for Disabled People - A Historical Perspective.  In: Public Disability History 8 (2023) 3.

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