Self-Defense With No Excuses

Julia Burke parries a blow and aims a punch at martial arts instructor Kenn Perry. Burke has cerebral palsy; Perry had polio as a child.
Julia Burke parries a blow and aims a punch at martial arts instructor Kenn Perry. Burke has cerebral palsy; Perry had polio as a child. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 18, 2013

Julia Burke didn't wear her leg braces to class, so her teacher told her to hit the floor for a few punishment push-ups.

"Are you kidding me?" said Burke, 17, a student at Bishop McDevitt High School in Wyncote.

Teacher Kenn Perry offered no jokes from his wheelchair, and Burke, who has cerebral palsy, gave him four.

In the self-defense class that Perry teaches with fellow black belt Christopher Genell, tough talk comes with high expectations. Students get no easy outs because they have disabilities.

"Folks with disabilities can be socialized to be dependent," said Perry, 58, of Philadelphia. "We're big on you don't need that help."

What Perry offers is the empathy of a teacher who contracted polio at 3 and learned Kenpo karate while standing on crutches and sitting in a wheelchair.

He also ballroom dances, skis, scuba dives, and plays tennis.

Perry's new class at the Abington YMCA and charitable foundation that supports martial arts for people with disabilities is his way of sharing what he has learned after years of involvement in sports.

"We want to teach empowerment," said Perry, a CPA. "Everybody can do everything. It's just that everybody does it differently."

Perry and Genell began offering the class in the spring and last year co-founded the Willow Foundation for Adaptive Martial Arts.

Students with disabilities including cerebral palsy and traumatic brain injury have taken the class, which is now in its second session and meets every Sunday afternoon at the Y.

"To see what [Perry] has accomplished makes me feel I can do that in the future," Burke said.

Perry's interest in martial arts goes back to his childhood.

"I wanted to learn karate ever since the second Friday of September 1966," Perry said. That's when he saw Bruce Lee playing Kato on the TV show the The Green Hornet for the first time.

It took Perry 22 years to find someone who could teach him, but he eventually found an instructor at Magee Rehabilitation Center in Philadelphia.

It took Perry seven years to earn his black belt.

Perry met Genell in a class in 1998. The two became friends and eventually decided to start the class and foundation.

The two aim to teach more than the skills necessary to block the punch of a potential robber.

They want to arm their students with things that able-bodied people take for granted, such as good balance, flexibility, a steady gait, and self-confidence.

Student Chris Brehm, 19, of Flourtown, says the class has helped him with his balance and self-esteem.

Brehm sustained a traumatic brain injury at 2. He has weakness on his left side and some intellectual disabilities.

"The best thing is learning how to do self-defense and achieve each move they teach," Brehm said.

During a class on Sunday, Genell, of Ambler, instructed Burke and Brehm in the nuances of the block and the counter punch.

Genell, 46, a safety director for a demolition company, operated a karate studio for seven years, but decided to focus on teaching adaptive martial arts after being inspired during a stint at a camp for children with disabilities.

"It was a lightbulb moment," Genell said. "Not one of these kids felt they couldn't do."

Perry says his motivation gets a jolt whenever he hears about a person with a disability being a victim of a crime.

"That stuff just drives me nuts," said Perry, who say he has had to use his skills for self-defense once - when a drunk patron in a bar tried to punch him. Perry blocked the punch.

In class on Sunday, Burke rose to her feet after delivering the push-ups. Perry's demands and demeanor did not let up.

Burke then blocked a punch during an exercise, but her stance wobbled.

Even so, Burke says, the class is helping.

She has noticed it recently on her visits to scout colleges when she has had to do something that every college student must do: stand in line.

"I've been able to stand longer without feeling like I'm going to fall over," Burke said.

It's during those moments when Burke appreciates Perry's toughness because, she said, it inspires her "to get better."

Contact Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or

comments powered by Disqus