'Its all about inclusion': Sask. teacher starts 1st disability-inclusive karate charity in Canada

A Saskatchewan karate teacher has adapted his classes to work for people with physical and intellectual disabilities, creating a charity that is the first of its kind in Canada.

Unique martial arts classes held in Ituna

Caregivers, family and friends participate in the unique Martial Arts Abilities Canada classes. Creator Brendan Breen says that promotes inclusion. (Submitted by Brendan Breen)

A Saskatchewan karate teacher has adapted his classes to work for people with physical and intellectual disabilities, creating a charity that is the first of its kind in Canada.

Brendan Breen said that when he began teaching martial arts three years ago he noticed his class was attracting students of all abilities. He taught children who were on the autism spectrum alongside some with ADHD, cerebral palsy or Down syndrome. The students were happy to be there.

Breen now uses a system created by the Belgium-based Inclusive Karate Federation to teach people with a range of abilities. He is the first Canadian representative for the IKF.

He said the classes help with inclusion, social acceptance and self confidence.

"It requires a lot of coordination, concentration, focus, but they're getting all these benefits out of it and they're enjoying it," Breen said.

Brendan Breen (left) started Martial Arts Abilities Canada this year. It's the first charity to combine karate and special needs. (Submitted photo)

Martial Arts Abilities Canada, created by Breen, is unique among 85,000 registered charities in Canada,.

He runs a class at Deer Park Villas in Ituna, a care facility for people with intellectual disabilities. Those with special needs are accompanied by family, friends and healthcare workers in the class.

"We specifically want caregivers and physiotherapists and other professionals to join alongside those athletes," Breen said. "They act as 'buddies.' They train among the athletes which promotes inclusion."

Breen and his wife run the non-profit themselves, volunteering their time to run the class in Ituna. Everything is by-donation and students only have to pay what they can afford.

"If they can pay, then great, it helps keep it sustainable," Breen said. "And if they can't, then it's 100 per cent free. Free gradings, free belt tests, everything."

"I don't want cost to be a barrier to this."

Adapting the classes

Owen Reid, 35, lives at Deer Park Villas and attends the class.

"It's a good learning experience for everyone involved," he said. "It's important for people with disabilities to be included in a class like that. I think it's also important for people to be included in society."

Reid has cerebral palsy and is in a wheelchair. He said he didn't think he'd ever be able to do karate.

"Anything can be possible, so just try it," he said. "You'll get rewarded for it."

Owen Reid, 35, has cerebral palsy and attends the class. He says he never thought he'd be able to do karate. (Submitted photo)

Modifications to the classes include students wearing coloured armbands so Breen can instruct them to punch with their red arm rather than their right. He wears them as well so they can mirror him as he stands in front of the class.

"If they see the colours, they copy. So that's one way we adapt. And that's worked fantastic," he said. 

He also lays down movement mats with feet positions in different colours. Coloured placards around the class help the students determine which way they should be facing.

"I adapt it only as much as I need to based on the individual," said Breen.

The classes are open to those age seven and older.

Breen said he hopes to partner with the Special Olympics one day. He has also reached out to the Invictus Games, which asked him to write a letter to Prince Harry about including karate.

"It's just all about inclusion. We want to offer this up as something different, that individuals with physical or intellectual challenges can do and we're just hoping for the people's support in Saskatchewan, and really in Canada," he said.


Alex Soloducha is a reporter for CBC Saskatchewan.