At 10 a.m. tomorrow, Barberton resident Paul Brailer will test with 30 other students in front of friends and family to kick and punch and spar their way to new karate belts at The Art of Karate in Barberton.
Brailer is nervous, but not because he was born with spina bifida that keeps him in a wheelchair with little functionality in his legs. Rather, he’s nervous to lead other students in their tests in order to earn his next belt: black belt.
Brailer, 40, has spent the last three and a half years of his life dedicated to karate and to defending himself.
“I read somewhere that the disabled and elderly are five times more likely to have crime against them than a nondisabled person,” Brailer said. “I had two friends get mugged and I thought how could I stay healthy and learn to defend myself.”
But karate and martial arts were never within Brailer’s reach, or so he thought, because of his disability. He put all his Steven Seagal and Chuck Norris wannabe dreams out of his head and forgot about it until he met Art of Karate co-owner Heidi Rudibaugh at a local restaurant.
Rudibaugh, 36, invited Brailer to her school to watch a class and he was sold. What was interesting to Brailer, though, was the fact that Rudibaugh never once told him he couldn’t do karate. Instead, they worked to modify karate forms to fit Brailer’s capabilities.
With the help of his instructors, Brailer learned to substitute hand techniques for kicks. If the form calls for a side kick, he punches out to the side. For a roundhouse kick, he jabs out an elbow.
Instructor Tony Hopson said it was a challenge for instructors to figure out different ways to do some of the moves, but that watching him excel and do it on his own was an inspiration.
“I don’t know what his goals were when he started,” said Rudibaugh, who owns the karate school with her father. “I don’t know if receiving a black belt was ever a goal. I think he enjoyed being a part of a family and doing things he never thought he could. A black belt is just an added bonus.”
Two years ago, a man approached Brailer outside the Rolling Acres Sears store while he was leaving work and wanted his phone. Instead, Brailer gave him a broken elbow.
Defending himself is an important piece of karate for Brailer, but he admits it’s helped build self-respect as well.
Growing up as a disabled student at school lowered his self esteem. By doing everything for Brailer, people thought they were helping instead of allowing him to learn on his own.
“Remembering how I grew up, I wanted to teach kids that they can do whatever they want,” Brailer said. “Don’t let your mind tell you that you can’t because your legs don’t work.”
This inspired him to start Criptaedo last summer, an online outlet for the handicapped to learn modified karate moves and self respect.
Right now, Brailer makes videos on YouTube and posts them on his website, criptaedo.com, where he talks about being healthy and demonstrates moves. He also does some public speaking, his last at a spina bifida organization in October.
He hopes to open Criptaedo gyms in the future equipped for the handicapped.
“I think that there should be more people out there doing what he’s trying to do,” Rudibaugh said. “He’s just trying to be an inspiration to people. Even if it’s just awareness, if he helps one person then it’s a job well done.”
Both Hopson and Rudibaugh agree that Brailer is his worst critic.
“He questioned himself, wondering why he’s doing this,” Hopson said. “But something made him walk in to that school, something made him start and something made him keep it going. It can be anyone’s guess what that is, but he stuck with it and we’re very proud of him.”
Rudibaugh said since working with Brailer, she refuses to hear anyone’s excuses, including her own. He’s built up muscles he never thought he could and even walked for Rudibaugh a few times, with the help of his walking sticks. But there’s always that self-doubt.
“He’s freaking out right now about Saturday, but we wouldn’t put him up against those obstacles if we didn’t think he could do it,” she said. “He’s doing it every day without realizing it, and if Paul can do it then so can you.”