On Friday mornings, Joanna Welikande, who has intellectual disability, needs little prompting to get out of bed because she knows what is awaiting her. Her family signed her up for a 10-week martial arts class at Enabling Village, jointly offered by Kali Majapahit Martial Arts Singapore (KM) and MINDS Me Too! Club (MTC).

Said Joanna’s domestic helper Virginia D Jala who is with Joanna at every session: “It seemed interesting and we have never joined such classes before.”

KM is a martial arts school that uses a Southeast Asian Martial Arts system with elements of Filipino Kali, Indonesian Silat, Muay Thai and Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do.

“Our programmes are designed to positively impact the world and the life of others, bringing out the best in everyone through the martial arts, developing leadership skills as well as teaching personal development skills, healthy lifestyle concepts, ethics and morals,” said KM instructor Mark Rodrigues.

The hour-long class Joanna takes part in is part of the Inclusive Martial Arts Programme by KM which specially adapts the skills in the martial arts school to suit people with disabilities.

Attendees using foam pool noodles as part of their workout

For the Inclusive Martial Arts Programme for participants with intellectual disability, KM replaced the weapons they usually use with foam pool noodles. This ensures that the skills are imparted in a safe manner without compromising the goals of building fitness while increasing energy levels and health.

MTC is a programme that enhances the social integration of adults with intellectual disabilities through leisure and recreational activities. Through age- and ability-appropriate activities, they are supported to develop their social skills and build friendships with other people with intellectual disabilities, caregivers, and volunteers.

Said Manager at MTC Julia Ng: “This is part of our community efforts to include persons with disabilities in more activities that would enhance their mental and physical well-being.”

Adapted to be inclusive

KM drew inspiration for a martial arts course for persons with disabilities, from the wheelchair boxing parasport.

“That prompted us to explore and develop martial-arts-based exercise programmes for those with disabilities. We decided on collaborating with MTC because their clients are physically mobile and have no issues with independent travelling to other venues,” explained Rodrigues.

Together with MTC, KM met SG Enable and agreed that Enabling Village, with its expansive grounds and facilities, is the ideal place to conduct the Inclusive Martial Arts Programme.

Sessions have been adjusted for those with Intellectual Disability. KM replaced the weapons they usually used to teach martial arts skills with foam pool noodles. Chairs were incorporated as well so that participants could have a mix of seated and standing exercises.

“Martial Arts training is not only about developing physical skills, focus and self-confidence but also about reaching challenging goals, and building up our health and energy levels.

“Our exercises aim to enhance the quality of life of participants with activities aimed at improving their mobility, coordination, and interaction with their peers.

“And our comprehensive rotating curriculum makes our very efficient and unique Martial Art system accessible to anyone,” said Rodrigues.

There were also bilateral exercises that target limb coordination as well as strength and conditioning exercises to maintain and improve muscular function and mobility.

Added Rodrigues: “The bilateral exercises were originally designed to build familiarity in moving weapons. Removing the physical weapons from the equation, we were still able to build attributes in learning how to move our limbs through various planes and angles.

“It is these drills and skills that we have brought to these participants in a fun and creative manner.”

Good for all

Attendees posing for a post-workout shot

Beyond being an excellent form of exercise, the routine developed by KM helps to build a sense of community as the participants learn to work with their peers as well as the caregivers.

Beyond helping the persons with disabilities to interact and play with each other, the exercises that train bilateral movement skills also develop confidence moving comfortably.

“It is very fun. I like the activities and the trainer,” said Joanna, 42, of her experience.

Said Virginia: “The activities are good for brain development, especially when we use the left hand and right leg. It is good for the mind. We look forward to coming because exercising is good for keeping fit.”

Noted Julia: “Our members are patient when they wait for their peers to react to their actions, and cheer for their peers who excel in the activities. They also look forward to the sessions, and do their best in learning the steps of Kali Martial Arts.”

Because the programme pairs participants with caregivers, staff and volunteers, there is bonding as well.

Said Virginia; “I can see my friends and also bring back what I learnt, to do it with Joanna at home.”

Julia added: “They would attempt these drills with other participants. This builds community spirit in learning and training with each other.”

Running the programme has also been an eye-opening experience for trainers at KM.

“Quite often, people are quick to assume that those with intellectual disability lack the capability to learn new things due to their varying disabilities. But, just like the neurotypical individuals, they too can enjoy different forms of recreational activities that help with their mental, physical and emotional well-being.

“We noticed that some of the clients who participated in the programme were eager to learn new movements and exercises. They managed to quickly pick up what was taught and even encouraged their peers to engage in the activities,” said Rodrigues.

Having seen how the participants got better at the activities with practice and benefited from the programme, MINDS is exploring future opportunities to offer the programme to more clients through this collaboration.