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Feel Safer in a Volatile World: Tips for Self-Defense While Living with Disabilities

Living Well

November 30, 2023

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Photography by Jelena Jojic Tomic/Stocksy United

Photography by Jelena Jojic Tomic/Stocksy United

by Ashley Harris

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Medically Reviewed by:

Debra Sullivan, Ph.D., MSN, R.N., CNE, COI

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•••••

by Ashley Harris

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Debra Sullivan, Ph.D., MSN, R.N., CNE, COI

•••••

•••••

Use a combination of preparation, attitude, and solid self-defense strategies to stay safe and empowered.

When I received a text message from a neighbor about an armed fugitive on the loose in our community, a quiver ran up my spine. I live in the western part of Randolph County, North Carolina, far from densely populated areas usually susceptible to crime. It was a place where I felt safe enough to leave my doors unlocked and windows wide open during the day.

Not anymore. For the next 12 days, my husband and I checked and double-checked the locks on all our doors and windows. I only rarely ventured outside, especially after I learned that the fugitive had already shot one person and that he later attempted to break into the home of a friend less than 3 miles from our home.

My helplessness was compounded by the fact that I have multiple sclerosis (MS).

While I can still walk without aid, I move more slowly than most people, and I haven’t been able to run for more than 10 years. I walk on a treadmill and lift light weights for exercise, but these activities alone would never be sufficient to make me strong enough to overpower a desperate and armed man.

My husband owns two guns, including his grandfather’s antique rifle, but this knowledge offered little comfort. I’ve had a fear of guns ever since high school when a prankster at a track meet fired a pistol loaded with a blank directly at my head.

To my great relief, the fugitive was eventually discovered hiding in the crawl space beneath his girlfriend’s house. While I breathed a little easier knowing he was caught, I knew things would never be the same again. My sense of security was forever shattered.

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Learning to stay safe

The good news about this incident is that it delivered a much-needed dose of reality. Given the volatility of the world, I realized that I sorely needed a thorough grounding in self-defense principles to use at home and while in public. And, since I have MS, I also needed specialized advice tailored to my circumstances.

To help, I interviewed Benedict Ang, senior coach at Total Shape and a professional competitor in mixed martial arts (MMA). His recommendations were simple and very easy to implement, which greatly eased my mind. The tips below might help you feel safer, too, and contribute to your own well-being.

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Stay alert

First and foremost, Ang advises vigilance, whether at home or in public. “Remain vigilant and aware of your surroundings at all times. This increased awareness can assist you in identifying and responding to potential threats more effectively.”

While your home should be your sanctuary, you should do all you can to secure it. Ang emphasized the importance of strong locks and a peephole for your exterior doors.

We are fortunate to have a dog who barks at the slightest provocation, but he is not a trained guard dog. Therefore, we are considering installing a security system at our home, which is another measure Ang recommends. These systems serve as eyes and ears within the larger parameters of your house and property.

Often, the sign alone notifying passersby of your security system can be a powerful deterrent to possible intruders. Additionally, if you see anything suspicious in your community, don’t hesitate to report it to the authorities immediately and, just as my neighbor did, reach out to your community and warn others.

Learn self-defense techniques

If you’re confronted by someone who seems intent on doing harm, Ang advises starting with the use of a personal alarm or pepper spray. “Self-defense techniques [like martial arts] should be a last resort when the situation calls for it. Always prioritize your safety and adapt your response based on what’s happening around you,” Ang says.

If you do need to use self-defense strategies, Ang says, “One of the most basic and effective techniques is to strike the vulnerable areas of the attacker, such as the eyes, nose, throat, groin, or knees, if you’re physically able. These areas are sensitive, and [striking there] can cause pain, injury, or distraction, giving you a chance to escape or fight back.

Ang suggests you also consider taking self-defense classes designed specifically for people with disabilities. I recommend “Adaptive Self-Defense,” which is a course offered by the Adaptive Martial Arts Association, a nonprofit organization that promotes martial arts and self-defense for people with disabilities.

The course “Adaptive Self-Defense” teaches people with disabilities how to use their natural weapons, such as fists, elbows, palms, knees, and feet, to defend themselves from common attacks, such as grabs, chokes, and punches. It also teaches people how to use adaptive tools, such as canes, crutches, and wheelchairs, to enhance their self-defense capabilities. It’s taught by qualified instructors who have experience working with people with disabilities and can be customized to suit the needs and goals of each individual.”

Unfortunately, I live in a small town without access to such specialized classes. However, my local YMCA offers low cost consultations with personal trainers who can help clients meet their special needs. I plan to ask for a customized session that helps me improve my core strength, as well as that of my arms and legs. Feeling stronger would be a tremendous asset for both mind and body should I ever find myself in a position of vulnerability.

As another resource, I also plan to check out the numerous self-defense videos on YouTube that cater to the needs of those of us with disabilities.

It’s also very important to remember that one of your best defenses is your voice. A one-word command such as “NO!” “STOP!” or “HELP!” in your loudest and most assertive tone can be very effective in repelling a potential assailant. Shouting can also help you by attracting the attention of other people.

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Be prepared

Sue, a good friend who is an older adult and, like me, unable to run, wears a personal security monitor around her neck. This device is capable of detecting falls and other unusual activities, which is important for Sue because she’s a gardener who spends many hours alone outside. If the device detects any unusual movement, a representative from the monitor’s company will call the police or local emergency management services. They can also contact Sue’s next of kin should she be taken to the hospital. As another option, Ang recommends installing a specialized app on your phone.

Smartwatches provide a variety of similar features. For example, the Apple Watch and UnaliWear’s Kanega Watch offer optional fall detection features that automatically alert emergency services if you experience a significant fall. In addition, the Apple Watch enables you to contact 911 or another emergency contact yourself, either by pushing a button on the edge of the watch or using a customized hand gesture. (The latter is only available if you have the AssistiveTouch feature enabled (available with Apple Watch Series 4 and later).

Plan your route before leaving home

As part of your preparation, Ang suggests planning your routes in advance when traveling. “Stick to well-lit, busy areas whenever possible. This helps minimize the risks associated with unfamiliar or dimly lit places.”

Because I don’t like to drive after dark, I leave early to make sure I accomplish all my errands well before dusk.

Ang also advises keeping others informed about your plans. “Share your whereabouts and plans with someone you trust. Having that line of communication is crucial in case of an emergency.”

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Project confidence

Ang considers your state of mind as a valuable defense in any situation. In all settings, especially in public,” Ang says, “it is vital that you communicate with assurance. This is especially important because it conveys your awareness and confidence in your abilities. Criminals often target individuals who appear vulnerable, so by exuding self-assurance, you can make yourself less attractive as a target.”

No matter how you get around, whether you walk unassisted or use an aid or a wheelchair, projecting a confident demeanor is one of the simplest things you can do. For example, when shopping, I make an effort to walk with a sense of purpose. Doing so also helps me complete my errands more quickly and reduces my fatigue.

Don’t go it alone

For anyone with limited mobility, Ang recommends traveling with a group. “There’s strength in numbers, and criminals are much less likely to approach a group of people. Whenever possible, arrange to go out with friends or in a group to enhance your safety.”

I completely agree. Being with other people is not only safer but also more fun. When I travel to the mountains each year to buy apples, I always invite a group of friends, and we usually hold a picnic by a scenic overlook. This is now an annual pilgrimage.

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Trust your instincts

Above all else, Ang advises trusting your instincts. That sixth sense of awareness that something’s not quite right — which, for me, often turns into a prickly sensation on the back of the neck — should not be ignored. “Trusting your instincts is essential,” says Ang. “If you ever feel uncomfortable in a situation or around a person, don’t hesitate to remove yourself from that environment. Your intuition can be a powerful tool in staying safe.”

The takeaway

As my recent experience demonstrates, there is no safe haven anywhere. But this doesn’t mean those of us with MS or other disabilities have to live in fear. We can enhance our personal safety by taking proactive care of ourselves.

The benefits extend well beyond a single event, such as the one in my community. Feeling safer not only brings a sense of peace but also improves your health by reducing anxiety and stress, which can prolong your life and your independence for years to come.

Medically reviewed on November 30, 2023

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About the author

Ashley Harris

Ashley Memory lives in southwestern Randolph County, North Carolina, surrounded by the mystical Uwharrie Mountains. She has written for NBC THINK, Wired, and The Independent and is currently working on a memoir about finding love and happiness while living with a chronic illness.

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