The “Illegitimate Black Belt”

*This is an unedited stream of thoughts that I have not proofread. It is raw and pure emotion.*

I catch a lot of flak being a black belt martial artist and judge, so I’m going to debunk some of the most commonly misunderstood, false, and sometimes plain malicious things I’ve heard over the years.

“People in wheelchairs can’t be black belts”. That is false in all 3 major/best known Taekwondo organizations in the world. I saw this on a t-shirt once and though it was fantastic: “Anyone can wear it (a black belt). Few can bear it.” Every person that has journeyed to a black belt (in any martial art) with all the blood, sweat, and tears for years knows that you become a black belt inside first. Only through that dedication, grit, and perseverance, does one earn their black belt. Wheelchairs and mobility aids typically don’t mean anything when it comes to earning a rank.

“You’re an illegitimate black belt” (because of the wheelchair). Take it up with my senior training instructor.

“Doing your form is easier sitting down. You don’t need to balance at all.” Actually, wrong. When I do certain parts of my form(s), I am balancing on a small peak at the top of my wheelchair. If I hold that position long enough, I get the same muscle burn in my abdomen and back that someone standing might get from holding a proper middle stance or back stance for example. I know this because I have done Taekwondo standing, which leads me to my next point.

“You’ve never competed standing up, so you don’t know how important stances are in forms.” False. I judge stances fairly regularly. I have to know them as well as everyone else. Also, the tournaments I did as a Karate Kid were on my feet. Additionally, I competed tournament years 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 standing up. 2017 ended up being a weird year, because I was in the wheelchair for half the season. And that brings me to my next point.

“You’ve had everything (accomplishments, titles, rank, etc.) handed to you.” Wrong. My state weapons title from the 2015-2016 season was in the regular division, as were my forms, weapons, sparring, and combat titles in the 2016-2017 season. My District and World titles are from the wheelchair, but they weren’t handed to me. I worked HARD for them.

Straight from the rule book: “A person confined to a wheelchair would never have the opportunity to score a two or three point technique.” First, people in wheelchairs aren’t “confined” to them. They are a means for us to get around and do what we want in life. Mobility aids are tools for a more full life. “Never have the opportunity to score a two point technique.” Never. Never. That’s a pretty big negative generalization. I don’t know, I mean I’m in a wheelchair, and I have a fair number of two point headshots on opponents in training and competition. Not all people in wheelchairs are paralyzed, but they would never have the opportunity to score a two point technique. I won’t score a three point technique (I’d need to magically jump for that), but I can score a two point technique.


Missing from the rule book all together: Combat Weapons Sparring Rules. The rule book doesn’t even have a section for it. If hitting the weapon hand below the elbow is 2 points for everyone else, what makes Special Abilities different? I can and do hit the weapon hand all the time. I can get to the head too and I don’t even necessarily need to have my feet on the ground. Getting the front leg would be a sticky issue for scoring, because someone in a wheelchair might not have a “lead leg” to stab. I normally do, but that’s not the same for everyone. So there may be some kinks to work out there. Regarding the presence of arms, if one arm is missing and someone is going to do combat, their weapon hand is probably going to be fair territory. If they are missing both arms without prosthetics, I’ve never seen or heard of someone doing combat in competition. But I would think the scoring on the prosthetics would be the same. I’m not going to say “impossible” or “never”, but I’d say it’s probably pretty hard to hold a combat weapon and strike without dropping the weapon or being hit before being struck and do combat with ones’ feet while remaining competitive.

“I’ve had to stop my own sparring/combat matches, because they weren’t being scored properly per the rule book.” Yes. I am pretty used to it now. I’ll ask the center judge to “stop time”, because I got my opponent in the head and I was *incorrectly* awarded two points. Even though I strongly disagree with the current rules/lack of written rules in the case of combat, but they are the rules and need to be followed regardless of how I feel. It’s a matter of integrity and winning because the judges didn’t know the SA rules would be wrong of me to win a match without saying anything. I refuse to compromise my integrity over it. Which brings me to the next point.

“The Special Abilities rules are missing from the Judging Chevron Clinic Video Series as of the last time I recertified my judging chevron.” So judges don’t get refreshed on the SA rules anymore and all too often, scoring errors are made unless someone says something. I get told that I’m “wrong” a lot. I get the RTTL or an individual ranking higher than the center judge familiar with the SA rules. On the flip side, it’s not unusual for the judges to ask me what the SA rules are, especially if a unique situation comes up.

“There’s discrimination when it comes to judging as a person in Special Abilities.” I have found this to be true and I have had at least 2 other SA competitors certified as judges message me and ask if I have issues getting judging assignments. The answer to that is yes. I have been booted off my judging assignments by other judges, because of my wheelchair and only because of my wheelchair. A brand new black belt, who was a brand new corner judge (never formally judged before apparently) as well took the spot I was assigned to judge “because people in wheelchairs don’t belong in Taekwondo and make better scorekeepers and timekeepers if they can ‘mentally keep up.’” That made my blood boil. When we walked out to bow in and introduce ourselves, the individual stepped in front of me and introduced themself as one of the judges. My blood was really boiling at that point. I didn’t say anything, because I had kids on every side of me and they really needed someone to get them in line. Not the time or place though. I never managed to get the individual’s illegible name or ATA #, but if I see them again, I’ll be pulling them aside.

Straight from the rule book again: “Please remember, the intent of these [Special Abilities] divisions is to providing opportunity for those who qualify [in regards to earning titles, Top 10, etc.] to earn the self-respect and self-esteem they could not have previously earned. The goal is that the competition be fair and safe for all the competitors involved regardless of their level of function and/or disability.” The way some Special Abilities competitors get treated is hardly increasing self-respect or self-esteem. There are some judges that have said some pretty despicable things within earshot of the competitors and I always hope the younger ones didn’t hear it. The self-esteem for some competitors (myself included) took a major hit with the widespread use of the “no exhibition sparring” rule. It was easily the worst 2 minutes of the 2018 Tournament of Champions for me to go out out on the mat without my gear on, have my arm raised, and be declared World Champion by default. Needless to say, I couldn’t wait to get off the podium after I got my sparring and combat medals and pins. I wouldn’t let my mom take pictures from the second time on the podium. It was downright embarrassing and other adult competitors expressed the same feelings. Someone put it expressed it as a feeling of being a “second class citizen” and I don’t blame them at all.

From the rule book (this one is two-fold): “Is hearing impaired”. Okay, in the late 1990s-early 2000s, “hearing impaired” was the most frequently used term to describe any degree of hearing loss. Now, deaf and hard of hearing (HoH) are the widely accepted terms. Using the term “hearing impaired”, implies that there is not only a deficit in hearing, but for some

people, it implies that they aren’t a “whole person”. I prefer deaf, because I am 100% deaf, but I know that would rub some people the wrong way. Second, if a competitor cannot hear (especially during sparring and combat because they have to remove their hearing aids, cochlear implants, etc.), we NEED the center judge (or any of the judges for that matter), to step into the ring to get our attention. I cannot hear the judges call break when I have my helmet on. It’s a safety issue, but one that is overlooked frequently. Judges, competitors that tell you they have a hearing loss are telling you that for a reason and NEED you to step out when they should go and step in when “break” is called.

From the “illegitimate” 3rd Degree Black (multi-time State, District, and World Champion), nothing is impossible until someone decides to make it possible.

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