How (and why) I teach self-defense to people who are blind: Johnny Tai
How (and why) I teach self-defense to people who are blind: Johnny Tai

By Johnny Tai, martial artist and self-defense instructor
Featured in Night Strike

For a blind person, defending oneself comes with very limited options.

Running is not an option, because a sighted aggressor can easily chase you down — or just wait for you to run into something. Calling for help is not a real option, since it is unlikely you will know where anyone is; likewise, you can't even do the sensible thing and run towards a crowded area for safety.

Extracting yourself after an attack can be a challenge on its own. What happened to your guide dog during the altercation? Did you break your white cane? Which way are you facing now? More importantly, how do you know that the attacker is not going to get back up and follow you home? If you dropped your phone during the attack, how are you going to find it now?

Johnny Tai teaches a participant in a self-defense class.

Johnny Tai teaches a self-defense workshop to blind participants (Night Strike). 

Even after you have successfully escaped an assault, you probably won’t be able to describe who attacked you or provide any useful identifying features to the authorities. Despite all these disadvantages, blind individuals have access to the best self-defence technique around: the element of surprise.

I learned this valuable lesson at 8 years old.

Violence and danger sparked my instinct for survival

When I was little, I didn't get to spend a lot of time with my parents. I probably got to see my mom five or six times a month, my dad once or twice a month. One day, I spent the morning waiting around my dad's office, then he and me and my mom were going to go for lunch.

When my father finished his work, he and I walked to the car. It was a hot, muggy day. We got to the car and my dad realized he'd forgotten his keys, so he put my hand on the side. It meant, "don't go anywhere and wait by the car." And he left.

I was standing there, learning against the car, when a strange man came walking up. He said, "You dad told me to come get you. Your dad wants you."

Right away, that tripped my radar — I knew my dad wouldn't have sent someone I didn't know. So I said, "I don't know you." The man got agitated and grabbed my wrist and said "Come on! You dad wants you right now."

I wasn't really scared at that point. Growing up in the kind of family I grew up in, I no stranger to violence. I remember the first thing that went through my head, as strange as it sounds, was "Oh cool. This is actually happening to me."

When he pulled me by the wrist, I stepped forward. I brought up my back leg up in one of the Taekwondo front kicks I'd been practicing for the past month and I nailed him right in the groin. 

Right away, he let go of my wrist and dropped down to the floor, cusing up a storm. That's when I got scared. I didn't know what to do with him after that. I didn't know what he would do to me if he recovered.

Luckily, that was about the time that my dad came out of the building. The man saw my dad coming toward us and he started running away. My dad didn't pursue him, because my dad didn't know what was going on until he [asked,] "What were you doing with that man?"

I told him. My dad just turned and looked. I don't think he ever treated this incident seriously, I don't think he thought there was a real danger. In my family, this kind of violence and danger happened often, so no one really took it to heart. As long as no one got hurt, people pretty much forgot about it and moved on.

Johnny as a child.

Young Johnny Tai.

Why I started the Night Strike Movement

When you are blind, self defense means being able to catch your aggressor off guard, control him or her, and neutralize him or her as quickly as possible. Beyond that, you must make a strong impression — so he or she is less likely to come back for a second try tomorrow, or next week, or two years later. It means you must conquer your own fear of the unknown, move when it's time to move and be certain in every move you make.

It means paying attention to what is underfoot and what may be around you, since you don't have the ability to see your surroundings prior to engagement.

I have practiced martial arts in various forms for as long as I can remember and I have been teaching martial arts for most of my adult life. Recently, I realized that there are many blind people who are interested in self defence, but can’t find a gym that will accept them as a student, or can’t afford self-defence and martial arts training.

A self-defense class participant feels a mannequin's head.

A workshop participant feels the head of a martial arts dummy.

This is why I started the Night Strike movement. My goal with Night Strike is not to replace any existing martial arts system, but rather to establish a strong network for blind martial artists. I want to help more disabled people all over the world gain the knowledge and independence that I believe that can come from martial arts and self-defence training.

The benefits of learning martial arts were clear to me from a very young age. My parents first introduced me to martial arts so I could protect myself and as a way to "toughen" me up, but I soon realized that I was learning how to protect myself from my own family.

Learning how to physically defend myself gave me the confidence to escape an increasingly violent and unstable family life — and to live independently and successfully as a blind person in a sighted world. Practicing martial arts has allowed me to see beyond the constraints of the prescribed role of a blind person. Through my work, I hope to help both blind and sighted people move beyond the ideas of how others see them so that they can truly live independent and fulfilling lives.