Climbing Things, Choking People, and Disability Inclusion (Guest Post)

I don’t remember why I had to go into the campus gym. As a nerdy college freshman who had no athletic interests and was in a wheelchair to boot, I felt out of place even being there. But while taking care of that long-forgotten errand, I saw something that would become a cornerstone in my life: a rock climbing wall.

As a kid, I would climb on anything I could — playground equipment, piles of mats in adapted PE class, anything I was physically capable of. I loved the creativity and problem-solving inherent to climbing. That impulse was still there at 18, so when I saw the wall, I immediately wanted to try it. But how? I have cerebral palsy that affects my balance (thus the wheelchair) and makes using my upper body difficult. One arm likes to reach up — when it’s not too spastic. The other prefers to stay closer to my body but is better at fine movements. Both arms move on their own and may or may not cooperate with what I want them to do. This did not portend success in rock climbing.

Sometime during winter quarter, I got up my courage and decided to visit the Outdoor Adventures office. I shakily introduced myself to the person in charge and said that I wanted to climb.

He was immediately enthusiastic about the idea. Unlike me, he knew of other climbers with disabilities and jumped into discussing possibile ways for me to climb. We talked about what I could and couldn’t do and what kind of gear I would need. From that moment, there was no question of whether I would climb, only how. A few weeks later, with the help of a full-body harness, I climbed for the first time. Despite being completely exhausted after a grand total of 20 minutes on the wall — climbing is hard and I was completely out of shape, having only recently begun to do any exercise after more than two years of inactivity — I fell in love with it.

At the wall, I learned to focus on my own progress rather than comparing myself to others. I spent weeks or months working on a single climb before any academic endeavour required such persistence and met people who remain friends to this day. (One is now a close colleague.) Wanting to climb better made me pay more attention to overall fitness. Eventually, I developed the endurance necessary with my slow pace, started using a regular harness, and surprised myself by learning to climb overhangs. I am now 33, have been climbing for most of my adult life, and can’t imagine going for long without it.

In 2014, however, I faced precisely this prospect after a massive water main break flooded much of the central part of campus. (After finishing my Ph.D. in ecology, I ended up working at the university where I had done my undergrad.) The rec center had reopened but the climbing wall would be closed for several months because the floor padding had to be replaced. While I was still doing gym workouts, I wanted something more fun than weights and cardio machines. I therefore decided to follow a childhood interest in martial arts and try Brazilian jiu jitsu, the choice being motivated largely by the fact that BJJ is a grappling art and the floor is my natural habitat. To start, I showed up to the first day of the beginner BJJ class.

While being on the floor felt comfortable to me, doing anything physical in a group setting certainly didn’t. (The only time I had done so was in a karate class I tried in undergrad.) Fortunately, someone had left a large punching bag lying on the floor and I used it to transfer from my chair to the mat without having to speak to anybody. I listened to the instructor’s introduction and then joined the other students, trying to keep up with the warm-up. (Calling it a warm-up seemed like an understatement, but I digress.) I could do, or sort of do, most of the movements and thoroughly enjoyed seeing the butt scooting I had come up with in childhood actually being taught. At some point, the assistant instructor came up and started helping me adapt some of the harder drills. Despite the fact that I managed to pop a toe doing a move that you couldn’t possibly hurt yourself doing, nobody questioned my being there and I came away from the first class knowing that I would return.

It wasn’t smooth sailing from there. Jiu jitsu isn’t easy for anyone and I’ve had more than my share of challenging moments. (Doing a drill with the instructor as my partner and mounting him backwards is high on the list.) But I loved the power (learning the rear naked choke on a much bigger guy got me completely hooked), the competitive outlet, and most of all, the mental challenge of sparring. And there was always support, both from the teachers and from fellow students. In fact, sometimes more advanced students would take the lead in coming up with an adaptation or substitution or making sure I was included when there was a guest instructor who didn’t know about me. There was no false cheerleading and discussions of how I was doing always felt honest, but the ongoing message was to keep at it. And I did, eventually going to my first open mat and training with people who had never met me before, then dropping in on classes at another school while we were on break, and then competing at Grapplers Heart, a tournament for grapplers with disabilities. I plan to stay on the mats for the foreseeable future — and given the number of gis in my closet, I had better!

What made these experiences of inclusion so successful? The thing that drew me to both climbing and BJJ — the constant puzzles that both offered — was part of what made them inclusive. Both activities emphasize technique and strategy over purely physical attributes. (In fact, BJJ started out as an adaptation of what is now called judo.) In both, there are many ways to achieve something and figuring out what to do is an intrinsic part of the activity. Most importantly, both embrace failure. Everyone who climbs falls off the wall — a lot. Everyone who trains BJJ gets tapped out — a lot. The only difference is the level at which these things happen. This results in a culture focused on individual improvement, at whatever pace. And this readily gives rise to inclusion.

Jane S. is an ecologist currently doing curriculum development in mathematical biology. She enjoys climbing, Brazilian jiu jitsu and any activity that involves thinking with your body. She also put way too much time into choosing the color of her most recent powerchair.

4 thoughts on “Climbing Things, Choking People, and Disability Inclusion (Guest Post)

  1. Sam B says:

    Such a great post. Thks for joining in the conversation. Hope you’ll write more for us.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this post! I’m recent-ish rock climbing convert (started about 2 years ago, and I’m in my early 30s) but *love* the mental aspect of it as well. It’s something I can see myself doing (and hopefully improving at) throughout my life.


  3. ebay313 says:

    Wonderful post! Thanks for your insights on this 🙂


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