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Big Gains From Small Moves: a Jujitsu Class Gives Its Blind Participants Confidence and Strength in Their Surroundings

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is re-printed from the Oregonian, September 12, 2000.

Of all the activities Bruce Jackson gave up after losing his sight a few years ago, he missed taking long, relaxing walks the most.

"Actually, I thought I would just fade away when I lost my vision, but I didn't," he said. "Then I thought I would spend the rest of my days sitting in my room, but the folks at the Blind Commission made it pretty clear that wasn't going to happen."

Now, once a week, Jackson walks from his apartment in Northwest Portland to the Small Circle Jujitsu class in the Hollywood district that helped him regain some measure of control over his life. "I started coming here a year and a half ago," the tall, soft-spoken 48-year-old said. "Now I've bonded with my classmates, and it feels like the place to be. It is my sole source of recreation."

Small Circle is one of the many systems of jujitsu that sprang up after World War II. Professor Wally Jay, who lives outside San Francisco, developed Small Circle in the 1940s, in part so that small people could subdue bigger ones.

Stan Miller, who operates the Hollywood dojo, or instruction center, said he realized a couple of years ago that the system had obvious advantages for the sightless.

"When you are blind, you don't want to get into a hitting, kicking sort of defense," Miller said. "You want to use surprise and take advantage of 20 small but powerful techniques to make the best use of your strength and fitness level. You want to be able to at least give yourself the greatest protection that you can."

Small Circle, emphasizing trapping, holds and misdirection, trains students to take charge of an aggressive assailant. The Small Circle principle of constant contact, for example, levels the playing field for the sightless person against a sighted attacker.

"Once I touch you, I have a map of your body. If I'm holding on to the fingers of your hand I know exactly where your head is, where your torso is," Miller said. "Get in and get control of your attacker, get them to the ground, and while you maintain contact, you have just as good a vision as a person with sight."

When Miller approached Pat Macdonell, director of orientation and career services at the Oregon Commission for the Blind, wanting to teach free self-defense classes to their clients, she quickly accepted. Since the program began 2 years ago, about 60 people have taken the class.

"A newly blind person's personal space is very important to them," Macdonell said. "The increased confidence the training gives them is amazing. It opens up a lot of freedom for people. They don't have to be afraid to travel. They can use the bus system, use their cane and not feel so vulnerable."

Ruth Holman, another of Miller's regulars, said, "All blind people have issues with balance, and doing body work is important for everyone. I am aware of my physical limitations, so I use what I have."

She said she isn't really afraid when traveling to her volunteer job as a hospice worker or to tell stories to hospitalized children, but she isn't naive, either. At 90 pounds and slightly less than 5 feet, she wanted a skill she could carry with her and that could never be taken away.

"It really works," said Martha Walker, a student of Miller's since July. "I was walking home from the bus stop this week, and I heard a guy running toward me. My first thought was the left arm lock we learned in class. "The guy crossed the street at the corner so I didn't have to use it but I was so glad I remembered what we practiced, and I felt prepared."

Miller noted that the class offers options in responding to an attack. "Defending yourself is a decision that only you can make," he said. "In some situations you might decide not to defend but instead to protect yourself. We teach students how to go to the ground and cover their heads. We call it turtling. They practice grabbing a pole or their attacker's leg, making it hard to pick them up or strike them."

Ongoing work at the dojo develops skills that make daily life more meaningful for the sightless students of Small Circle. These skills allow Jackson to take up walking again and give Holman enough upper body strength to turn hospice patients in their beds.

But more importantly, Miller thinks that the training helps his students fight fear, whether it is a fear of circumstances or a fear of attack.

"You have to look at your own attributes, what kind of person you are," he said. "Some people have a desire in their heart, no matter if something happens, I will fight back. Other people don't have that, and we try to bring it out."