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Wheelchair Self-Defense: Making Effective Self-Defense Available to Wheelchair Users

wheelchair self-defense

Wheelchair Self-Defense: Making Effective Self-Defense Available to Wheelchair Users

By Colm Whooley


What I would like to do here is introduce the concept of real and practical self-defense for wheelchair users, hopefully change your perception and understanding of self-defense for wheelchair users, and most importantly encourage you to actively look at how you can facilitate and invite wheelchair users to participate in your school or class. 


To give a little background into the evolution and development of this self-defense course, it is important to say that this article is not about me as a wheelchair user, it’s about giving you some background on how the course and techniques were developed, and how you can empower and teach wheelchair users real and effective self-defense.


My interest in martial arts goes back to the early 70s when I trained in Kempo Karate, Boxing and some Jiu-Jitsu. However, in the 1980s, when traveling home from work on my motorcycle, I was involved in a road accident. I broke my back and sustained a spinal cord injury.  As a result, I now use a wheelchair to mobilize.  For a couple of years my only involvement with martial arts was through reading martial arts books and Black Belt Magazine.


However, it was two quotes by Bruce Lee in a magazine that got me thinking again that maybe real and effective self-defense was possible for me as a wheelchair user:

“Use only that which works, and take it from any place you can find it.” 

“Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”

These quotes touched a chord with me.


I started looking into Jeet Kune Do and was fortunate enough to find the top Jeet Kune Do instructor here in Ireland, Martin O’Neill. At the time I was CEO of Spinal Injuries Ireland based in the National Rehabilitation Hospital.


While l was initially looking to see if effective self-defense was a realistic option for me as a wheelchair user, I also thought it could be something of real value to look at developing a program for all the new wheelchair users going through the National Rehabilitation Hospital. Martin kindly traveled down to the National Rehabilitation Hospital to meet and discuss the possibilities of developing a self-defense program. 


Our first meeting was a real learning experience. We bounced ideas back and forth, tried various techniques and strategies and ruled out numerous ideas.  We both agreed that with the honest and critical approach we were taking, an effective self-defense program might be possible. 



It is more than 25 years since the initial meeting with Martin and the program has evolved and changed. As part of the evolution, I have continued to train with numerous instructors from the USA the U.K. and Europe including Martin O’Neill Jeet Kune Do Ireland,  James Devine Coach MKG North Dublin, Tim Tacket Founder of the JKD Wednesday Night Group, Alain De Preter Jun Fan Gung Fu instructor Andy Kimura Senior Certified Instructor Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute Seattle USA, Phil Norman Ghost Fighting U.K. and Andy Norman Founder and Head Instructor Defense Lab...(biography continued at the end of the article).




A number of the unique core principles developed in the course include:



Fighting within our Zone: As a wheelchair user we quickly realized when developing the course, that we cannot bring the fight to the attacker or chase him, because when we maneuver or propel our wheelchair, we drop our hands and our heads are totally exposed. To address this, we developed the principle “Fighting within our Zone”

If you think of “Our Zone” as a circle, with us sitting in the middle. The distance to the perimeter of the circle i.e. The Zone is approximately two arm lengths from the wheelchair user’s head.

Once the attacker is outside the zone the threat is reduced. “He can’t strike or grab us. When the attacker moves inside our zone to grab or strike us, our guard goes up. Palms facing the attacker, appearing to be passive i.e. saying back off, I don’t want trouble. But ready to respond to a strike or a grab, think of a Cobra Snake, if you move too close to it, he will strike, but if you step back, he doesn’t chase you.

wheelchair self-defense

wheelchair self-defense

wheelchair self-defense

The Guard: As outlined when discussing the principle of “Fighting within our Zone,” maneuvering and having our guard up creates a challenge. There is also the risk of an attacker charging or lunging forward and pushing us at head or shoulder height tipping us out of our wheelchair. Our Guard addresses this. As an attacker threatens or approaches the wheelchair user, we move the wheelchair slightly back positioning ourselves and our wheelchair, so that our right knee is now pointing at the attacker’s centreline. Think of the Jeet Kune Do stance. By positioning ourselves this way, it reduces the key target area “our head”. Increases our striking range, but MOST IMPORTANTLY minimizes the chance of being tipped out of our wheelchair.

With practice Wheelchair users can with minimum movement pivot their wheelchair slightly which will off balance the attacker if he grabs you.

wheelchair self-defense

wheelchair self-defense

Striking Angles: One of the challenges we had when developing the course was looking at how as a wheelchair we could generate maximum power when we strike an attacker. The obvious problem is a wheelchair is by design, designed to move and maneuver optimizing the mobility of the wheelchair user. If as an example we look at a straight punch delivered from a

standing position, power is generated and you brace yourself with your feet on the ground. If we use a straight punch, the laws of psychics will apply on contact and we will lose energy as the wheelchair moves back.

Our positioning with our adapted guard addresses some of this issue. But what really helped was delivering strikes at a slight angle. This negates the movement of our wheelchair, so striking upwards again at an angle or using a backfist across our body means we can deliver our strikes with power.

The Finger Jab/Bil Jee works particularly well, when we trap a grabbing arm and strike upwards.

wheelchair self-defense

Trapping and anchor hand: As outlined when discussing “Fighting within our Zone” we cannot bring the fight to the attacker or chase him. Also, from a sitting position we cannot reach a standing attacker’s head to strike. However, when an attacker reaches down to grab us, we consider this a real gift; we can generate significant power, trapping the attacker’s arm, because it also helps our balance. We do not push the arm down, rather think of us pulling the attacker's arm in and close against our body.

This does a number of things, besides immobilizing the attacker’s arm, it massively improves our balance and striking power. Because we are using the attackers balance against himself, pulling the attacker down compromises his balance, but also significantly it brings the attackers head into range where various strikes can be applied i.e. Finger Jab, Palm Strike or Back Fist or the thumb jab to the eye which works particularly well.

During all the research and reports on attacks on wheelchair users, grabs to the shoulder or throat area have been widely used by the attacker. Applying the same principle of trapping we can bring the attacker down and into striking range.

Note: With all techniques we teach wheelchair users to apply strikes simultaneously on trapping

attackers’ arm in one move, delivering maximum power.

wheelchair self-defense

wheelchair self-defense

More background on the author and his work: 

(Continued)...Some of the styles of martial arts we tried included Jeet Kune Do, Wing Chun, Kali, Krav Maga, Silat, Combatives and Defense Lab.


While we weren’t always able to incorporate what they were teaching into our course, we were getting a real insight into what was possible.  Over the years we have been able to introduce some special techniques that really worked well for wheelchair users under pressure.


The course is unique in that it has been developed specifically for wheelchair users and instructors who want to teach wheelchair users, with tried and tested techniques. The course is more than just learning self-defense it’s also about empowering and giving the participants real confidence in their ability.


The course is now being taught here in Ireland, the U.K. Europe, and the USA. And, I’ve had the pleasure of running online classes for disabled patients in one of the largest rehabilitation hospitals in the USA, The Shepherd Center.


One of the core reasons for anyone learning self-defense is because they want to feel safer when out and about. And more than ever this is a key factor for wheelchair users. Sadly, we are living in changing times particularly for wheelchair users. 


When we first started developing the self defense system for wheelchair users over 25 years ago, violence against wheelchair users was not as prevalent as it is now.

Black Belt Plus

Why do wheelchair users need martial arts and self-defense training?

To illustrate the violence wheelchair users are now facing, I have included some Newspaper headlines and statistics to illustrate the level of violence.


Newspaper Headlines 


“Wheelchair user kicked to death by attacker”

“Wheelchair user threatened with a knife”

“Wheelchair user robbed and raped.” 

“Teenage girl in wheelchair robbed and sexually assaulted”

“Wheelchair user injured in “appalling” attack”

“Despicable assault on a wheelchair user”


Statistics and Reports

A report released by the USA department of justice’s bureau of justice statistics finds that between 2011 and 2015, people with disabilities ages 12 and older were victimized at two-and-a-half times the rate of the general population. Persons with disabilities were victims of 26% of all nonfatal violent crime, while accounting for about 12% of the population.

The rate of violent victimization against persons with disabilities (46.2 per 1,000 age 12 or older) was almost four times the rate for persons without disabilities (12.3 per 1,000).



The World Health Organisation (WHO) reported that disabled people are one and a half times more likely to experience violence, and a survey in Britain published stated that the number of disability hate crimes reported has risen by 75% in one year alone.


In a review carried out by John Moores University’s Centre for Public Health, it highlights the fact that both children and adults with disabilities are at a higher risk of violence than their non- disabled peers. And the most shocking statistic for me is children with a disability are almost four times more likely to experience violence and much more likely to be bullied in school than non-disabled children. 


wheelchair self-defense

Initially the course was just taught in the National Rehabilitation Hospital and at some centres, but an email from a mom in Yosemite National Park in California changed all that. The mom had read about the course and asked if we were teaching it in the USA, because her young son who was a wheelchair user had tried to find somewhere that would teach him self-defense without success. This got me looking at how I could make the course available to wheelchair user in different countries and also to instructors so they could teach it to wheelchair users in their schools.


At the same time as part of the development of the course, I had been training online with defense Lab, so I contacted Andy Norman of defense Lab and explained that I was looking to see how I could develop an online self-defense course for wheelchair users and instructors and make it available.


Andy kindly invited me over to Valencia in Spain to discuss what could be done.

Following on from the meeting in Spain, Andy Norman and Grek Fenollosa Co-founders of defense Lab immediately said they would love to help and agreed to work with me refining techniques and then produce an online course.


It is important to say, what is unique about the DL Wheelchair Self defense Course, is that it addresses the challenging dynamics of defending and fighting from a wheelchair.

wheelchair self-defense


Hopefully this article has challenged and changed your perceptions and got you thinking about teaching wheelchair users’ self-defense in your class.

If you have any questions, I would love to hear from you, so feel free to email me at I am also more than happy to chat on Zoom.


If you would like more details about the course, please go to the link below



Colm Whooley


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