Adaptive Martial Arts Class: Making Strength and Confidence more Accessible

Written by: Lauren Smith; Class of ‘25 Editor-in-Chief

1st year DPT students Lauren Smith (left) and John Lighthart (right) with Sensei Mark Nothdurft

In my second semester at Regis DPT, I completed my service learning project with the Denver Adaptive Recreation program, an extension of Denver Parks & Recreation (DPR). Myself and fellow 1st year SPT John Lighthart attended weekly adaptive martial arts classes, learning alongside the participants while also assisting the instructors with demonstrations and one-on-one practice.

This adaptive class is offered in affiliation with the Mountain Tiger Society, an organization specializing in therapeutic martial arts. Sensei Mark Nothdurft has been running the class for over 20 years, but has been supporting this mission for an even larger part of his life. The objective has been to teach physical and cognitive self-defense strategies to individuals with disabilities, a population that unfortunately faces a disproportionate level of targeting and manipulation. Throughout the hour-long class, participants practice moves that can be used to escape a variety of attacks, whether it be chokeholds, wrist capture, or attempted blows. The participants and instructors take turns role-playing with each other to solidify the movement patterns and get used to different angles and body sizes. The class also incorporates punch and kick training, as well as situational training such as sidewalk safety, calling 911, and protecting personal information.

The participants range in age from teenagers to older adults, and they represent an array of physical and cognitive disabilities. Many of these individuals have been participating in this class for years, some even since its inception, and have developed an impressive skill set. Several have advanced belts, and most of them could probably take me down if they wanted to. This group has found an incredible community through this class, while gaining a level of strength and confidence that is often gate kept from those with disabilities. In a world that views ‘disability’ as ‘inability’, it is crucial that this population recognizes their own potential and is supported in their efforts to build their physical ability and competence.

participants receiving instruction during a class

This class has had a profound impact on the community it serves. In testimonies shared with Sensei Mark, one woman successfully fought off a sexual assault attempt using defensive maneuvers taught in the class, while another participant saved a neighbor by effectively reading the situation and calling 911, another skill taught and practiced in the class. Stories such as these drive the mission of this class, and serve as evidence of lives changed by the adaptive martial arts program.

I also found my time in this class to be incredibly impactful. I was forced to face my own ableist biases, as I had a tendency to go easy on the participants when practicing skills. As Sensei Mark pointed out, allowing someone to do the skill ineffectively would be doing them a disservice, as these participants deserve to be corrected and coached to success, just as I would do for someone with no cognitive deficits. I was also repeatedly humbled, allowing participants to correct my form and demonstrate the move quicker and more effectively than I ever could. After a full semester of Wednesday evenings, I left the class with a transformed perspective of disability and greater acknowledgement of my own role in the culture of learned helplessness that often holds this community back. I have so much respect for the work that Mark and his colleagues are doing, and I expect great things from the participants who have found strength, confidence and community through his class.

To get involved or learn more about the organization, check them out at!

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