Wheelchair Self Defence

Wheelchair users are often selected as soft targets for criminals based on the following reasons:

  • they are perceived as weak and vulnerable
  • they are unable to get way and escape
  • there is less chance of them fighting back

Unfortunately, predators choose victims based on the three points above irrespective of someone being in a wheelchair. The wheelchair just serves to emphasise this perceived and actual vulnerability.

Can wheelchair users learn self defence?

I would answer this with a question in return, can wheelchair users become inspiring athletes?

The answer to both is YES, although whether or not the individual is able to achieve anything close to athleticism depends on the nature of the disability or condition, and/or the personal amount of effort that they are willing to put into training.

It is the same question when anyone learns self defence. We are all used to the videos online of the powerful young martial artist or cage fighter, who seems like a machine. People like this do not tend to be selected as victims. An out of shape older male or female may present as a victim based on their perceived weakness or fragility, and this will also limit the sort of techniques that they can learn and the power that they can generate. Simply looking at a professional fighter who has dedicated their life to combat sports, and expecting them to be able to simply teach the same results is unrealistic, and should be avoided.

A highly specialised approach to teaching needs to be applied when designing courses and applying techniques for wheelchair users. An understanding of physical limitations is essential, but also how turn this to an advantage by using biomechanics.

The concept of reality based self defence is to consider a system, strategies, tactics, concepts and techniques (in that order) that will work when both the type of attacker (murderer, rapist, robbery, mental health related and so on) together with the method of attack (knives or sharp weapons, grabs, chokes, strikes and so on) are applied.

In short, who is attacking you, why, and how

An example:

A 45 year old woman whom is wheelchair bound, is suddenly set upon without warning by a man clutching a sharp screwdriver. The man initially punches the woman, and then thrusts the screwdriver towards her several times…

What should the woman do?

Was there really no warning? Was the woman personal safety aware, looking around her, and in a general state of awareness? Or, was she on her phone immersed in social media, work emails and so on… If she was aware, is there a possibility that she may have seen the man exhibiting predatorial behaviour?

Where was the danger? Punch itself can be catastrophic in some cases, and the knife or screwdriver can be deadly if it penetrates into the heart, lungs, artery, brain and any other vital organ.

In most cases, the heart being penetrated is the number one killer where sharp weapons are concerned, followed by arterial bleeds…

The strategy therefore needs to be “do not get hit in the head and knocked out, and do not allow the weapon to stab a vital organ”.

In this situation, the individual will not be able to run away. They need to use barriers such as handbags, rucksacks, books, or anything else that they have on them to use to block or attenuate any damage from a knife. In the absence of an object, taking damage on the arms is better than being stabbed in the heart, neck, eyes etc. Initially it is all about damage limitation. The one advantage of a wheelchair is the ability to carry “stuff”, and tendency to do so. Many of these items may potentially have defensive use…

Verbal commands are also important. Verbal commands can frighten the attacker, make them consider consequences, empower the victim, and also rally the courage and support of bystanders, who will often need a kick emotionally to intervene. Saying the right thing at the right time can make a real difference.

The victim also needs to wrestle psychological and emotional control back, and start to overcome the often crippling fear and freeze responses.

If the attack is in open ground and in a public area, help will usually arrive quickly, and you may have to weather the storm and go into survival mode. It may be about NOT LOSING as opposed to WINNING! Catastrophic damage can happen very quickly, and one stab can be fatal.

It may be that there is no chance of help, although it is unlikely that someone who is wheelchair bound will find themselves completely isolated. If this does happen, focussing on the weapon and disarming is possible with the correct techniques. If the attacker is unarmed, then pulling them in down to your level may be the best option – where their mobility, which was their advantage is neutralised. This may give you a tactical advantage. Of course, size and strength are all factors to consider. Once pulled downwards though, it is possible to focus on soft targets such as the eyes and throat.

In summary, an effective self defence system for those in wheelchairs will look like this:

  • Personal safety – planning and understanding of risk and threat, awareness of what is going on around you
  • Psychological self defence – controlling fear, projecting fear onto the attacker, influencing bystanders and the attacker using verbal commands – are all essential and can be learned very easily
  • Practical techniques – that are not based on strength, and that can be mastered and applied whilst under pressure
  • Defensive skills – limit the damage and survive
  • Biomechanics – understanding leverage, and the limitations, strengths and weaknesses of being in a seated position.
  • Contingency planning – this consider all of the “what ifs”. What if I get knocked over or tipped over, what if the attacker is behind and starts wheeling, pushing or pulling my chair, and so on… All of these scenarios need to be drilled and practices realistically. You can never just assume that one technique will work. That’s the problem with the “top ten tips approach”, it rarely considers the what if it doesn’t work scenario…

Work out your strategy

  • What is happening, what is your aim
  • Choose tactics to support this strategy
  • Concepts will allow you to change your tactics and adapt them dynamically

The techniques that you use need to work under pressure and not put you at too much risk. Being offensive can work, but can also expose you, being defensive may be the better choice. The phrase “the best defence is a good offence” assumes that you are capable of a good offence in the first place…


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