Lifestyle – Independent living

after her harrowing car accident which left her paraplegic (paralysed from chest down
After her harrowing car accident which left her paraplegic (paralyzed from chest down

It was after her harrowing car accident which left her paraplegic (paralyzed from chest down), that Lydia la Riviere Zijdel got interested in martial arts. She went on to become a renowned name in the arena of self defense. Her advice to women, especially disabled women is for them to learn martial arts for it will not only safeguard them but also make them appreciate the finer things in life. Jeswan Kaur writes.

“And for women with disabilities, self-defense is the tool that can help them deal with the double jeopardy life has thrown at them.”Lydia la Riviere Zijdel”

Self defense has shown itself as a valued skill in warding off violence including violence experienced by women. And for women with disabilities, self-defense is a tool that can help them deal with the double jeopardy life has thrown at them.

It is said that 10% of the world’s population suffers from some form of disability. Some international studies consider the figure to be as high as 20% in developing countries.

“Despite the fact that the number of people with disabilities is so high, in many fields they are treated as ‘invisible citizens’. When we talk about women the situation of ‘invisibility’ is even greater, although there are about 250 million women in the world with some form of disability,” martial arts exponent Lydia la Riviere Zijdel told CHALLENGES.

She said girls and women of all ages with any form of disability are generally among the more vulnerable and marginalized group in society.


Lydia believes in changing attitudes through action and demonstration
Lydia believes in changing attitudes through action and demonstration

“About 650 million people in the world or 10 % of the world’s population live with disabilities and frequently encounter a host of physical and social obstacles,” said Lydia.

To fight those obstacles, women and girls with disabilities are exposed to the benefits of self defense. According to Lydia, self defense has an unambiguous effect on the empowerment of disabled women and girls, giving them the strength to capture or recapture her life as a disabled woman.

“Everyone who is in a vulnerable position needs to defend herself or himself. Woman and girls with vulnerability i.e. disability are more vulnerable to any kind of attacks, especially mental attacks.

“While self defense will not prevent disabled women from becoming victims of violence such as sexual violence, it however will definitely empower them to combat violence on all levels, starting from her organisation,  environment to her private life,” she said.

The 57-year-old Lydia has been a wheelchair-user for the past 26 years. But disability was no barrier for her to go on to make a name as a  martial artist, having earned her second degree black belt in karate and a first degree in Aikido. Over the years she has trained more than 6,000 disabled women and girls and about 1,000 men and boys in all the European countries.

“These courses were always accompanied by teacher training courses to teach experienced local or national self defense or martial arts teachers to carry on with teaching disabled women and girls after my departure.”

And for the first time Lydia conducted a four-day self defense workshop in Malaysia for women/girls with disabilities. Held from May 20-23, the workshop took place at the Commonwealth Hall of the National Sports Council in Bukit Jalil, Kuala Lumpur. The workshop was sponsored by the Women’s Sports and Fitness Foundation Malaysia together with Women WIN and ITAR and the National Sports Council.

Lydia returns to Kuala Lumpur in November to train martial arts teachers to enable them to carry on conducting the martial arts courses periodically.


Far-fetched idea

Lydia was hardly surprised when most people initially found the idea of self defense for disabled people too good to be true.

“It was a case of you will believe it when you see it. But when women competed for the first time in the Olympics people were skeptical. There is this myth that women cannot do certain things. But I say we can.

“When you are disabled it is not the end of the world. We can still be parents, we can still work and we can also learn martial arts. It is a bit tough but in self defense I look at everyone’s ability and work at getting them to optimize those abilities. It is more about approaching people on their aptitude,” explained Lydia.

She said disabled women and girls were an oppressed group not only within the women’s movement but also within the disability movement.

“That is why I believe empowering disabled women and girls is very important. Although many empowerment, assertiveness and self defense courses for disabled women and girls have a larger focus on mental exercises, I have always believed in a combination of physical and mental approach. That is why I always start with physical exercises to show women the capabilities of their respective bodies,” Lydia added.

Lydia sharing session with Malaysians at self defence workshop
Lydia sharing session with Malaysians at self defense workshop

Changing attitudes never easy

“It is easier to build ramps to houses than to change people’s attitudes. It will take a much longer time. When I walked alone in Petaling Street, I was asked about my carer. People are so conceptual in thinking that just because I am in a wheelchair I must need a carer,” said Lydia.

Thus, it is all the more important for the disabled people to be independent, to travel alone and transcend their world.

“Martial arts taught me a lot about myself. I learned about trusting myself. We are all born alone and we die alone. In between there are many times when we are alone. So if you do not like yourself, no one is going to like you. You cannot demand people to like you.

“I thought if I wanted to learn to fight, that meant I liked myself enough to do so. That is how it all started for me. Martial arts also teaches you to be non-judgmental and respect your fighting partner. And you learn to enjoy the little things in life, like I enjoy the laughter of a child,” she said matter-of-factly.

Challenges Magazine Vol 1 Issue 4, 2008  (Challenges Magazine is a journalism skills training project for persons with disabilities started in 2007)