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How My Son's Karate Teacher Taught His Students About Inclusion

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I think most teachers and parents want children with disabilities to be included in the regular activities of their peers. But sometimes, we are not sure how to foster such an environment. We don’t know how to get kids to include others without telling them to do so, which usually ends up just being an inauthentic experience for everyone. Having a son with cerebral palsy, which gives him mobility issues, I often get to see how some people handle these situations. Some do it better than others, but one example shines among them all.

My son Arlo was 5 years old when we signed him up for karate lessons as an added physical therapy and as a way to help boost his confidence. It started out with private lessons with a superb teacher Sempai David Corrigan of Progressive Martial Arts Academy in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He was great with Arlo, and I would soon learn, with all children. The goal was to integrate Arlo into the group class called The Little Dragons.

When the day came for Arlo to join, I watched from behind the partition and prayed he would do OK among the eight other students whom he’d never met. If you’re a parent of a child with a disability, you too have likely held your breath with tension and hope in similar moments.

Sempai David introduced Arlo to the class and they began their first activity, which was a relay race. Oh no, I thought to myself. He was going to have to be a part of a team. Of kids counting on him to help them win. To be the fastest! I couldn’t believe this was how it was going to start.

Each student was supposed to bear crawl all the way across the mat and back before the next teammate could go. When Arlo was tagged and he started across the mat, the students all fell silent and one of them asked, very loudly, “Why is he so slow?”
Arlo heard this and stopped. He turned around to look at his new classmates all watching him. My heart broke.

Sempai David answered the question with, “We don’t talk about our classmates unless we’re encouraging them. So let’s cheer him on!” Then he started clapping his hands and said, “Go, Arlo! Go, Arlo! Go, Arlo!” Soon the whole class was joyfully joining in on the chant, jumping up and down, discovering how much more fun that was than pointing out his “flaws.”

Arlo continued on with a smile and finished the lap. His team lost. Sempai David congratulated the winning team and said, “The bear crawl is a fun race, but all of you were so set on being the fastest and winning, that each one of you fell as you scrambled across the mat. All of you except one. Do you know who was the only student who didn’t fall?”

One by one the students all said, “Arlo.”

“That’s right,” Sempai David said. “And the reason he didn’t fall was because he was paying attention to his form instead of his speed. In martial arts, having perfect form is the goal, not speed.”

They moved on to other activities. At the end of class, Sempai David handed out stripes to be added to students’ belts for accomplishments, and as a way to signify a step closer to earning their next color belt. Several students received a stripe, but Sempai David said someone earned a special patch that day for their gi. He held it up and told everyone, “It says Perfect Form. One of you achieved perfect form today. Do you know who it is?”

One by one, each student answered. “Arlo!” Again they all clapped and cheered for him as he got up to receive his patch with a big, proud smile on his face.

After class, all I could say to Sempai David was, “Thank you,” a loaded couple of words. If I had said more at the time, I would have risked breaking down in tears. I was not only grateful, but in awe of how he took the new “different” kid and turned him into a role model simply by recognizing his unique qualities and celebrating them. I was thankful that he showed a bunch of kids how much more fun it is to celebrate and encourage others rather than cutting them down and excluding them. And although they did not know it, that day each kid experienced how much better they felt about themselves by participating in inclusion. That is how it’s done.

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Originally published: June 1, 2017
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