Dearne Arrah still pinches herself when she watches her son, Jack, compete in Para Poomsae events. Sometimes it’s hard to believe just how far he’s come since he found Taekwondo.
Born with a severe intellectual disability and physical deformities such as bilateral talipes and a high cleft palate, Jack had to undergo major reconstructive surgery on his face and skull when he was just two years old. He is also hearing impaired, visually impaired and speech impaired.
It’s no surprise, then, that sports were the furthest thing from Dearne’s mind at that time. She was anxious about his health and wellbeing, much less his ability to throw punches and kicks. But over the years, Jack has made a habit of defying the odds.
“As a parent, I was still in that phase of wondering ‘What does this mean for Jack’s life? What kind of a life is he going to have?’,” Dearne says.
“With his bilateral talipes, which is short for clubfeet, Jack’s got no ankle movement. His ankles are locked in a 90-degree position, and he can’t move his ankles at all. That affects all the muscle development of his legs as well.
“I’d never have imagined in my wildest dreams that he’d be representing Australia one day.”
It was Jack’s disability support worker, Karen Doyle, who first suggested that he give Taekwondo a try. As Jack’s Education Assistant at Kinder, and a Taekwondo Instructor at ATI Martial Arts in WA, Doyle believed Taekwondo could strengthen his confidence, motor skills and focus.
“I’ve known Jack since he was five at kindy. The physio who was treating him at that time gave us some exercise ideas at the kindergarten and some help with him on equipment at our playground. I told him one day that I was teaching martial arts and I thought it might be good for Jack, and he agreed.”
It was a bold idea given that Jack had such limited flexibility in his legs. Doyle explains that “because of his talipes… Jack can’t bend and jump, or bend and hop. he hops and jumps with straight legs.
“It makes it terribly difficult to complete the movements within the patterns.”
Jack’s intellectual disability was another concern. Learning movements, grouping them together, and memorising them in sequence, would be a huge challenge for him.
Nevertheless, Doyle and Dearne agreed that with careful consideration of the movements Jack could and couldn’t do, it would be worth a try.
Jack was initially placed in a specialised Taekwondo program for three to six-year-olds, where Doyle taught him some of the basics, including where to stand and wait in line for his turn, before building up to key repetitive movements.
“Since very early on, we’ve had magic tape. It’s electrical tape, but we put it on students’ belts. It’s for attitude and I tell Jack, ‘if you don’t behave in class, and you don’t behave at home, that comes off your belt’.
“He’s very good at following rules, but Taekwondo has made that even better. He knows the boundaries and that if he does something wrong, then that’s the outcome.”
While Jack learned focus and discipline, he was also allowed to have fun and let his infectious personality shine.
“He loved it. He could be loud, he could be boisterous, he could run and jump, and do all the things small children love to do.”
Eventually, he moved up to the club’s junior program, where he encountered a host of new physical challenges.
“He struggled at the start of the junior program with the patterns and different skills, but I just modified it slightly for him and we worked with what he was physically able to do.
“When I start teaching him a pattern, I teach him by a count. So, I count the pattern out and he’ll do the moves. If he gets lost, I say ‘alright, you’re up to move number ten’, and he’ll know where he’s at.
“I also use verbal cues that stem from the Makaton Sign Language. So, for example, in a part of the pattern where he turns and does a block, I’ll say to him ‘that’s like knocking on a door’. He’ll say ‘oh yes’. Then, I’ll say ‘you’ve just knocked on the door, what comes next?’, and he’ll know what’s next.”
As Jack’s skills and passion for the sport grew, so did his drive and determination. He practiced incessantly, whether he was on the mats with Doyle, or throwing strikes in his backyard. The result was a rapid improvement in his ability to memorise and execute Poomsae patterns.
“He’s been able to focus so well and develop the sequencing that he struggled with through his intellectual impairment,” says Doyle.
That’s not to say it’s been an easy journey for Jack. Learning Poomsae patterns has required painstaking practice, patience and determination. It took him 18 months to learn his first pattern, but the sense of accomplishment this gave him was priceless, according to Dearne.
“It was a massive step forward for him and he’s always practicing in his own time, he loves it so much,” Dearne says.
“If you think about that, it was through practicing all the time. He did Taekwondo for 18 months before he got that first pattern right. Now, he’s picking them up in a matter of six months.
“It’s also a huge credit to Karen. I can’t say enough about how well she works with Jack, she adapts her instructions. One of the biggest things is putting different parts of sequences into biteable amounts that he understands. She adapts to speak to his level and the connection they have is amazing.
“She has all these different sayings that are quite funny like ‘window wipers’. They’re the cues he gets, for teaching the patterns. Her ability to do that has really made their relationship much stronger and helped him to be successful. So that can’t be discounted. Jack has certainly got the willpower, but Karen is really the icing on the cake, making it all happen.”
The speed with which Jack is picking up new patterns shows that Taekwondo is providing him with far more than just a physical outlet.
“It’s keeping his brain going. It’s about challenging him with his disability and seeing how far he can push himself. So that is a massive, massive accomplishment, and to Jack it’s not about winning,” says Dearne.
Now 21 years old, Jack has been competing in Para Poomsae for years, and has picked up gold medals at both domestic and international events. He won gold at the WA State Championships and the 2016 Oceania Championships, and finished sixth at the 2019 INAS Global Games. He’s also gearing up for the 2023 Virtus Games in France.
Practicing new patterns and preparing for these tournaments has given him clear goals and direction, which Dearne explains can be rare for young people with disabilities.
“One of the things you find, particularly with a disability, is you leave school and it’s just about life skills, getting a job and doing whatever. There’s no goals in life. There’s no achievement base of things for these kids to do.
“For him, he’s got a goal now to be the best, do better, compete all over the world. These are things that would never have been available if he didn’t do Taekwondo. That’s a big thing! He’s getting to travel the world and do patterns.
“Although he does compete against other people, he is always challenging himself to become better… From our perspective, he’s got this massive goal that’s going to drive him for the rest of his life. That’s important because otherwise, he doesn’t have much to drive him. This fills that void and pushes him to say ‘no, I’ve got to achieve something’. He’s going to leave a mark.”
Having a safe space to socialise within an inclusive community, has also been vital for Jack.
“He loves going, he feels a part of something and that’s really important when you have a disability… To have these sorts of things that he can belong to becomes very, very powerful in his life.
“The club is very welcoming for Jack, he knows a lot of people and he feels part of something… There’s also the disciplinary side of it because he knows he has to behave because that’s part of what being a member of a Taekwondo community does… They’re the things that make a difference.”
Jack has felt that same love wherever he goes, particularly at state and national events, where he’s become a fan favourite.
“For all the competitions we’ve been to, I can’t say enough about how accepting the Taekwondo community is of Jack. He’s welcomed like a hero, like a rockstar. He just loves that, he thinks that’s just the best thing. And he gets people coming up, complete strangers coming up, and saying ‘hi Jack, you did really well’. That means so much to him.
“Once you meet Jack, you don’t forget him. He’s just got that kind of infectious personality about him. I remember the first time he went to Nationals, you couldn’t hear a pin drop in the stadium when he went on. The whole place stopped, it was amazing.
“I don’t think he understood the implications, for me as a Mum when that happened. It was very powerful, very emotional. To see him have that kind of effect… the thing that he doesn’t realise is he’s showing other kids what’s possible, even a lot of parents what’s possible.”
Dearne hopes that any parents of children with disabilities, who are interested in getting them involved in sport, will be inspired by Jack’s story.
“I think Taekwondo is a perfect recipe for kids with disabilities because they can do it at their own pace. The thing with team sports, which I also love, but for Jack, his eyesight is not the best. So anything with a ball ad catching is quite difficult. So what happens with those sorts of things is that he’s not really active and participating.
“I would like those parents to know where Jack was. From my point of view, when Jack was little, he would the smallest things in the biggest yard and trip over it. He was very clumsy and he did all the things that said ‘this kid’s going to be hard work and not going to achieve much’.
“So when they look at their kids and go ‘oh I don’t think they can do that’. I want them to know they can. Anything is possible.
“Jack doesn’t put any limitations on himself, he just keeps going. I see Jack doing Taekwondo for the rest of his life.”
If you’d like to support Jack Arrah’s dream of competing at the 2023 Virtus Games in France, you can make a donation at this link.
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.