Special needs students take their karate skills to the mat during Adaptive Martial Arts classes at Tamashii Black Belt Academy.
Kyoshi Linda Hanson, a seventh-degree black belt and owner of Tamashii, inspires these special students to break down barriers of all types. They kick, punch, and laugh their way toward achievements that they and their families might never have imagined.
“In adaptive martial arts, we adapt the skill level of the technique to meet the student’s ability,” Hanson said. “During the classes, students who have a wide range of disabilities that prevent them from doing traditional moves are offered adaptations to compensate for the move.”
Hanson, a native of England, began martial-arts training at age 14, practicing traditional Shotokan Karate. She immigrated to the United States in 1984 and continued to train in the Shotokan form.
During the early 1990s, Hanson began teaching martial arts. When she opened Tamashii six years ago, she added the Adaptive Martial Arts classes to her range of martial-arts instruction.
“I’ve always had an affinity for the special needs community,” Hanson said. “I completed a professional, two-year nanny program in England. Part of the training was to spend time in homes of those with special needs.”
Hanson and her staff of instructors currently teach more than 100 special students — children with traumatic brain injuries, cerebral palsy, autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome, spina bifida and other afflictions — at the 3,800-square-foot dojo as part of a rapidly expanding program.
“We teach through the Down Syndrome Guild,” Hanson said. “We also teach martial arts and life skills to special needs students in several Lee’s Summit schools, including those in the district’s medically fragile program. We also offer summer camps for those with spina bifida at Camp MITIOG in Excelsior Springs.”
At the time she launched her dojo’s adaptive classes, Hanson also joined the Adaptive Martial Arts Association and today is the chief consulting instructor for the international organization.
“When martial arts instructors have questions about students with specific special needs, we brainstorm ideas about how they can best teach the students,” Hanson said.
Tamashii’s Adaptive Martial Arts program is a vehicle for the array of learning opportunities and benefits students receive in the classes — including physical agility, increased motor control and balance, improved concentration and listening skills as well as enhanced self-confidence, social skills, discipline, and self-control.
“The classes are so much fun, though, the students don’t even realize they are learning,” Hanson said. “They enjoy the movement rather than it being work, and they have a blast.”
D.J., 9, has experienced a lot of fun and learning in Hanson’s classes since 2014.
“D.J. is autistic and non-verbal,” his mother, Catrice Hill, said during a class last month. “I wanted him to learn self-defense, so he could protect himself.”
Not only is D.J. learning self-defense, he’s reaching milestones in many other areas through his martial-arts practice.
“His gross motor skills and peer interactions have improved tremendously,” Hill said. “The group activities and play in the classes help him connect with his peers.”
Kayla Barnett also wanted her son, Wyatt, 4, who’s also been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, to study martial arts.
“Before he was diagnosed, I wanted him to learn self-defense,” Barnett said of Wyatt. “After he was diagnosed, I was reluctant to enroll him in a mainstream martial arts class. Finding the adaptive classes here was perfect. ... Wyatt does great. He’s doing better now in group situations and is more tolerant of being around people for longer periods of time.”
During the adaptive classes, each student is paired with one of the academy’s other instructors or advanced leadership students, who assist them.
Black belt Delaney Crick, 14, has worked as an assistant in the adaptive classes for several years. She’s specifically worked with Rhys, 6, for three years.
“I love helping others and working with the kids, seeing how each one does different things,” Crick said.
Hanson said she and her staff learn as much from the special needs students.
“I’ve become more compassionate and patient,” Hanson said. “Also, the instructors and assistants have learned more patience and compassion. They understand that, even though we are not all built the same, each person has amazing value. Everyone here benefits.”
Hanson is working to identify more ways to help those with special needs in the community.
“I’m working with the Adaptive Martial Arts Association to develop a conference here for instructors who want to develop their own adaptive program,” she said. “I’ve also been talking to some karate tournament promoters about adding special needs divisions. I think there’s more things happening in the special needs community and they are being acknowledged more. It is long overdue.”
During the last three years, Hanson also has hosted a fundraiser for Special Olympics called “Kickin’ It with Cops.” Nearly 80 martial artists from seven karate schools teamed with Lee’s Summit police last year for the kick-a-thon and raised more than $4,000.
Hanson’s ability to empower her students to achieve otherwise seemingly impossible tasks astounds.
During a class at Camp MITIOG for around 60 children in wheelchairs, the group wrapped up some punching and hand techniques.
“Now let’s do some kicks,” Hanson said.
At that point, she said, a little boy shouted, “Excuse me, have you seen what we’re sitting in?”
To which Hanson answered, “Yes, I have, and there’s no reason why you can’t do kicks.”
She then taught a technique that many didn’t think they were capable of until that moment.
“Each child’s para was sitting in front of him or her,” Hanson said. “I asked them to reach out with a jab punch to the paras’ tummies. The paras leaned forward, as if they’d been punched. Then, the kids reached up and grabbed their paras’ heads and brought them down to their knees, which was a knee kick.
“The triumph in these kids’ faces was fantastic. They’ve been sitting in wheelchairs and now they can kick.”
Tamashii Black Belt Academy is located at 3680 N.E. Akin Dr., Suite 130 in Lee’s Summit. For more information on classes, including the Adaptive Martial Arts program, call 816-554-8275.
Children with an official autism diagnosis may receive reimbursement for the special needs classes through the KC Regional office and the Autism Choices Project, if they qualify. Contact Kyoshi Hanson for more information.