SaltWire E-Edition

Para-Karate Program All About Inclusion

By Pat Lee

The four participants in a recent Saturday morning karate class work through a series of moves, following the instructions of sensei Heather MacDonald.

“Pretend like you’re riding a horse, Zak,” she says to one enthusiastic athlete who needs to move his legs apart to about shoulder width. “Get on your horse!”

The direction does the trick as 14-year-old Zakaria Hilowle, along with three other classmates, quickly adopts the stance MacDonald was looking for.

The participants, ranging in age from pre-teen to 40 years old, are taking part in the province’s only para-karate program for those with intellectual challenges.

Held weekly at the Canada Games Centre in Halifax, the program is offered through Murphy’s Karate Academy, owned by Jeff Murphy.

MacDonald, a third-degree black belt in the sport, said working with athletes with such challenges is an area where she has a lot of experience.

“I’m all about inclusion and providing a welcoming space for people of all abilities,” she said. “I’m an EPA (Educational Program Assistant) by trade, so I work with people of special needs. I also have a son with autism and he got his black belt.”

On this Saturday, she is assisted by her daughter Lily MacDonald, also a black belt, and Aarushi Patil, who provide almost one-to-one support to participants. She said there is usually one more assistant and two additional regulars who join the class, which has been offered since last fall.

Zak’s dad, Mohamed Hilowle, said he’s noticed a lot of improvement in the teenager’s abilities since he joined the program.

“I’ve seen him pretty much look forward to it,” he said. “He likes the fact that when he comes in (the dojo), he does the karate routine that they taught him: he bows to go in, he bows to go out.”

Hilowle said he’s also pleased with the camaraderie that has developed among the participants, particularly between Zak and Tobi Dada, who are close in age.

The karate lessons are also keeping Zak physically active.

“He loves to practise at home,” Hilowle said. “There’s kids at different levels, but they work with the kids at whatever level they’re at.”

Hilowle said he hopes the program can be expanded to a few more times a week as there are few such opportunities for kids like Zak.

MacDonald said she’s also seen a lot of improvement from the attendees.

“There’s one little guy (who will say), ‘I did it!’ So, you hear that confidence, and you want to build on that. You want them to have something they can take away and go, ‘I did karate.’

“It makes my day.”

MacDonald said the goal is to have para-athletes join regular karate programs throughout the province, as well as providing them the opportunity to compete.

“We want to get them to the point where they can join a regular class with or without support. That’s what inclusion is. You have people of all abilities in one class.”

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