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Kicking the limits: Instructor uses martial arts to help students with disabilities
Alexis Johnson, 9, started wearing leg braces when she was 18 months old after being diagnosed with cerebral palsy. For about an hour she takes off the braces and wears a tae kwon do uniform to practice martial arts with her instructor, Alan Williams, part of her treatment.
At his Outerlimits martial arts school near Oak Ridge, Williams uses his 31 years of experience in martial arts to teach traditional students and students with disabilities. Putting on a uniform and earning a belt rank gives his students a new outlook on their treatment, he said.
"There's more to it than trying to make it interesting," said Williams, who is also a physical therapy assistant at Southeast Missouri Hospital.
After having 11 joint surgeries throughout his life, Williams said he knows the physical therapy regimen from a firsthand perspective. With children especially, he said, an element of fun helps the treatment.
Johnson said she likes working on her roundhouse kick. She said she practices in the grass at home because she falls down often, but never gives up.
"I like to learn the defense because it will help you when danger comes, especially when your parents are elderly," she said.
After two months of tae kwon do she is showing improvement in balance and flexibility, said her grandmother, Vera Archer. For example, she can now stand flat-footed and brush the floor with her hand, Archer said.
During class, Williams gives her goals encourages her to kick higher, especially with her weaker left leg.
"Alexis is one of those kids, she's just determined," Archer said.
Archer said she notices the small improvements in the left leg but still tenses up sometimes while watching the class.
"I try not to show those things to her," she said. "Kids read us like books."
Williams said he started teaching at the hospital in 1998. Since then he has taught at various locations in the area. In fall 2008, he and his wife, Jani, built and opened his own school in the country. He also teaches a class once a week at the SEMO Alliance for Disability Independence in Cape Girardeau.
Williams said individuals with disabilities are often written off, but he helps them with their weaknesses. He works with students who have cerebral palsy, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Down syndrome and are recovering from a brain tumor.
"I know what their specialties are and what they can and can't do," he said.
Kevin Henry, 41, started studying with Williams nine years ago while in a wheelchair. He now uses a cane and credits martial arts with helping him learn to walk.
"I wouldn't have even tried if I hadn't come," he said.
Henry was 21 when he started having double vision, the first symptoms of spinal cerebral ataxia. The neurological disorder that targets the cerebellum has since affected his speech and ability to walk.
"All that crap you don't think about, your cerebellum does," he said.
He said he started by standing up, finding his balance and throwing punches. He eventually relearned to walk after gaining more self-confidence.
"I'm going to stand here and not fall over," he said, recalling his thought process. "I'm going to walk across the room and not fall over."
Henry, a brown belt, helps with the children's class, which is an hour before the adult class he attends.
He said he changes his technique to fit his abilities. Sometimes he pivots more to keep his balance and prevent from falling down.
Williams said his students with disabilities are adaptive.
"There are no limits, only modifications," he said citing the motto of his school.