Martial arts for a person with disability

Whether you’re after strengthening, conditioning, self-defence or community, martial arts can open up a whole new world for a person with disability. (Source: Shutterstock)

This edition of Disability Support Guide looks at how to stay fit and independent in self-defence courses.

Key points

  • People with disability should feel included in any sport they are interested in pursuing, including martial arts
  • Living with a disability does not define the capacity of a person to learn and practise certain forms of martial arts — whilst capoeira may be less accessible than fencing, leave the door open to discover what’s possible
  • Due to regulations in Australia surrounding self-defence weapons or utilities (such as pepper spray), learning how to become disciplined, agile and independent may help during instances of vulnerability


This edition of Disability Support Guide will chop through the various styles of martial arts which may be accessible to someone with a disability. Living with a condition which may require significant assistance can have an impact on self-esteem and could potentially impact the willingness of a person to pursue a form of martial arts they are passionate about.

This article will cover fencing, karate, Jiu-Jitsu and aikido — presenting a range of adapted and available options to people living with disability, along with an overview of the style itself. It is important to note that martial arts are not intended to be used as a form of antagonism or violence, but as a healthy way to take part in a community of like-minded students.


Wheelchair fencing, ‘parafencing’ or ‘adapted fencing’ is a foundation sport of the Paralympic Games, since the multisports event was introduced in Rome, 1960. The sport relies upon the same three instruments (foil, épée and sabre)  used in the traditional combat sport, with sparring done from each swordsman, using a wheelchair to move and manoeuvre.

The sport relies heavily on dexterity and agility, with wheelchair fencing categorised under class A (full trunk movement and good balance), class B (no leg movement, trunk and balance impairment) and class C (athletes with a disability in all four limbs — ineligible for Paralympic Games).

The Australian Fencing Federation (AFF) offers specialised wheelchair models based on existing International Wheelchair & Amputee Sports Federation frames. For more information about parafencing in Australia, please visit the AFF website for further details

Adapted karate

Para-karate or ‘adapted karate’ is growing in popularity following its inclusion in the World Karate Federation in 2006. Para-karate is classified under three categories:

  • Visually impaired athletes (k10)
  • Intellectually impaired athletes (k21, k22)
  • Physically impaired athletes (k30)

Para-karate Athletes are encouraged to focus on ‘kata’ or form, which means finding ways to emphasise certain aspects of the general martial art or incorporate different schools of karate methodology into their practice and sparring. For example, a person who uses a mobility aid may train for core and upper body strength, along with open-palm blocking and striking, rather than kicking.

Although para-karate is a relatively new form of the martial art, it is important to know that many distinct forms of karate tutelage are being researched and practised across the world. As a result, parathletes and martial artists are encouraged to look into the ancient styles and unearth something entirely unique.

For more information about adapted karate, please visit the World Karate Federation website for further reading.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) is grapple-heavy and perfectly suited for people with mobility impairments due to the aim of throwing and strategically using weight in order to best someone or get them on the ground. One of the most respected practitioners in the world, Jean Jaques Machado, is a seventh degree red and black belt in the art. The artist has won gold medals around the world and was born with only a thumb and a little finger on his left hand, which is a testament to the accessibility of the art.

Psychology Today suggests that people with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) may also have an easier time developing their skills in the martial art due to the intense focus required, which is heightened by body-to-body contact and sense of intimacy.

To find out more about Jiu-Jitsu, get in touch with World Jiu-Jitsu Australia today to find out about clubs in your area and events in each State and Territory.


The word aikido consists of three parts: ‘ai’ (harmony, coordination), ‘ki’ (energy, internal strength), ‘do’ (the way) — essentially, coordinating mind with body and surroundings.A research paper (An aikido-based intervention supporting the therapy of a child with autism spectrum disorders, 2019) reviewing the efficacy of aikido as a positive mental health outlet for a male case study subject with an ASD shows that an aikido martial arts camp had a positive impact on social, emotional and physical wellbeing. Of note, the 16 year old became more receptive to engaging with others, expressing himself, taking action and communicating more effectively.

Polish researchers (Ewa Polak, Jakub Sikora & Maciej Rachwal) conclude in the discussion of qualitative aikido therapy results: “[…] this broad spectrum of benefits confirms that therapeutic treatment using aikido training can be useful for children with special needs.”


Related content:

What are my adaptive sport options?

Recreation, sport and the NDIS

Disabilities not supported by the NDIS