Queensland's Taekwondo club owners and instructors are learning key ways to create a fair, safe and inclusive environment for Para-Taekwondo athletes through awareness seminars.
Janine Watson, Australia's first Paralympic medallist and three-time World Champion, is sharing her knowledge on the strengths and challenges Para-Taekwondo athletes face to help grassroots clubs to support them as the sport's popularity continues to grow.
Watson approached Australian Taekwondo Queensland (ATQ) about running Para Awareness Seminars after completing her World Taekwondo Para Coaching level 2 qualification. Watson noticed that many instructors felt apprehensive about their ability to teach people with a disability, and she wanted to help.
"What I found was a lot of instructors and people I talked to were really nervous about how to teach or coach someone with a disability," said Watson.
"It's just because they've never experienced it before and the anxiety is 'I don't want to make that person feel unwelcome, I don't want to make them feel unwanted. I don't want to offend them'."
Given that World Taekwondo has recently overhauled numerous Para rules and classifications, Watson felt there was a serious need for clarity at the grassroots level.
"I said [to ATQ] let's start getting some information out there, so people can feel more comfortable with having someone with a disability in their club."
Watson held her first free Para Awareness Seminar for ATQ in May, which was attended by a number of coaches and parents, and followed with another in July as part of the Far North Queensland Open.
The seminars help club owners and instructors build practical awareness through a series of problem-solving tasks that put them in a Para athlete's shoes. Crucially, it's also a comfortable space where participants can ask questions freely, without judgement.
"My seminars are very much a safe area. Because I've been part of Australian Taekwondo for 15 years now, everyone knows me. They can ask what you'd call those silly questions," Watson said.
Head Instructor of Edge Taekwondo in Queensland, Darryl Green, was one of Watson's first participants and found there were many important takeaways from her scenario-based training.
"As an instructor, I had no idea how to deal with someone who's blind or in a wheelchair," Green said.
"When someone walks in and they're blind … how do you react? What are the best teaching methods? What's the best way to communicate with them?"
"If you had someone come in with one arm, how do you go through all the [technical] stuff with them?"
Green found the answers to these questions by literally throwing punches and kicks from the perspective of a Para athlete, under Watson's direction.
"I do problem-solving activities where they're actually in a wheelchair and they have to do a pattern," Watson explained.
"We also do a problem-solving activity where participants are blindfolded to represent someone who has vision impairments."
"They have to try and figure it out and actually experience those challenges and that empathy of 'oh, that's what it actually feels like'."
"[It] sort of gives Instructors the confidence afterwards [to think] if someone in a wheelchair did turn up to my class, this is what I could teach them. So that apprehension sort of fades away during the seminar."
Green agreed and said he now feels much more comfortable that he can provide a fun and supportive space for any Para participants that come through the door of his facility.
"Janine is an excellent presenter," Green said.
"For me to get just that little snippet of information in two hours, I think I can deal with it [para taekwondo instruction] and handle it [now]."
At its core, the seminar reinforces the importance of treating people with a disability just like anyone else, according to Watson.
"A lot of people focus on what people can't do, rather than focusing on what people can do."
"So [it's a matter of] just looking at someone with a disability as exactly the same as anyone else coming into your club."
"You adapt your teaching for a four-year-old and you adapt your teaching for an 80-year-old."
With the possibility of Poomsae becoming a Paralympic sport by the Brisbane 2032 games, there has never been a better time for Australian Para athletes to get involved.
Winning an Australian sports medal is no easy feat. The national award, bestowed upon those who exhibit sporting excellence, is an incredible achievement for any athlete in a competitive and high-achieving sporting nation like our own. Even more remarkable and rare is to see both a coach and an athlete win the award simultaneously.