Seven Times Down, Eight Times Up

There are many sayings in the Japanese language that have their roots in martial arts and the military. Nanakorobi yaoki, which can be translated “seven times down, eight times up” among other ways, is a saying to encourage someone not to give up, and is one of my favourites. It’s also a good way to describe the mindset needed while on the never ending search for inclusion in a society not built with people with disabilities in mind.

Inclusive environments are wonderful places. But I’ve learned that in many cases, inclusivity is heavily dependent on following certain conditions, or meeting the expectations of whoever is in charge. Yet every once in a while, there emerges a place where someone who is blind or partially sighted can simply relax, be themselves, and not worry about being accepted or being held at arm’s length. Often, those feelings of comfort are present only while among others who are blind or partially sighted, but not always.

I have always loved martial arts. From childhood memories of watching Chinese films and dramas full of high-flying action with relatives waiting for my parents to come pick me up after work, to my Dad teaching me simple self defense techniques he learned in the military, they have always fascinated me. Growing up totally blind, I gradually discovered that movements showed to me by relatives who were trying to describe action scenes were movements I could never have imagined on my own. Never having visually seen a fight or any sort of action in a movie, it isn’t possible to picture combat as something with complexity. Even words like punches and kicks didn’t have a scope beyond my very limited understanding based on my own body movements. Yet when someone would describe moves from a movie or show me a decorative sword at an Antique Shop or Night Market, I was fascinated by the movements described and shapes that I was able to feel. They were unlike anything I could imagine. So, at 16, I decided that I would find a martial art of choice and try it for myself.

Five years later, I had almost given up. Across multiple styles and clubs, instructors were reluctant to teach a blind person, or were only willing to teach me a reduced curriculum. Still others politely told me that it would be too dangerous for me and for others, while some simply did not respond to multiple emails. But during that time, I met Johnny Tai, another blind martial arts enthusiast who I still consider a mentor to this day. Among other things, he taught me that if I just kept looking, I would find something. And by his example, I saw that being blind was no barrier to practicing martial arts, if one had a passion for them.

In 2015, I decided to make a fresh attempt. During that time, I continued to read about different martial arts from different parts of the world. While some had suggested I take lessons from someone who taught young people with disabilities, I was determined to try the martial art I wanted, rather than what was available. So I reached out to the instructors of another Aikido dojo. About a week went by without a response, and I had begun to wonder if this was simply going to be another MISSED ATTEMPT. Yet when it came back, the response was like a long overdue breath of fresh air. They had never had a student who was blind before. But, if I was willing to try, then so were they, and perhaps we could learn from each other.

It has been 5 years since then. In that amount of time, the dojo has grown to be an example to me of what a truly inclusive environment can be. And it was, from the very first day. Our head instructor asked everyone to help me out because I was new, and I can’t see. While this may have felt awkward for some, I have learned that this is something done for anyone who comes to the dojo for the first time. We will always be reminded to take care of a newcomer because in the dojo, we take care of each other, blind or not.

Senior instructors are observant and will let me exercise all the possibilities before asking me if I need something explained differently. Others have a natural sense of when to offer help, and when to simply practice with me the same as anyone else. Still others will not let me off easily because of my inability to see, as in the case when a senior student told me that if I didn’t want to get hit, I needed to react faster. Yet nowhere is this more evident than in the way I am treated by our dojo’s main instructor, Tama-Sensei. She constantly reminds everyone in the class, through words and actions, that it’s always important to give your partner a 100% chance, no matter who you practice with, because only if you give them a 100% opportunity will they be able to show 100% of their potential. And in my own case, this is expressed through her willingness to help me practice how to roll and fall by throwing me again and again – all the while with an encouraging word or smile that motivates me to get back up every time I fall. Rolling and breakfalls are perhaps the most uncomfortable for a sighted instructor who has never taught a blind student. Yet in this, as with all other things, Tama-sensei along with the rest of the dojo members have shown me that I am not only accepted, but that they view me no differently than they view any other member. Every member of the dojo has a different personality, different way to practice, and different challenges and needs. Mine are simply another set of them, no different than anyone else’s.

So thank you, Tama-Sensei, and thank you, Shohei Juku family, for being an example of what true inclusion is, and for helping me see that whenever I fall seven times, I can always get back up 8 times.

by Clement Chou