Disabled pioneer whose challenge rewrote rulebook
PUBLISHED: 09:15 25 January 2013 | UPDATED: 09:15 25 January 2013
Paul Irons' life changed forever when he was involved in a car accident which left him paralysed from the waist down. So when he went to a taekwondo demonstration in Gravesend High Street and challenged instructor Frank Salmon on what he could teach him, neither were even considering a black belt.
Yet two-and-a-half years on, Paul collected his first dan – the first degree black belt – and is looking ahead to complete his second.
For Frank, the teacher at Twin Dragons Taekwondo which meets at Cascades Leisure Centre in Gravesend, Paul was his first student in a wheelchair.
Given that taekwondo generally includes kicks among the various blocks, punches and strikes, the syllabus had to be revised.
“When Paul came up to me in the street and asked what he could learn I told him to throw a punch and we went from there. We have a syllabus but I rewrote it all. Everything had to be changed. Where there are kicks I have replaced them with punches or blocks,” Frank explains.
Paul became interested in the self-defence side of taekwondo, he says. “For me it’s about self defence in the real world. I’d like to know I can look after myself.”
Paul was just 21 when he was involved in the devastating crash, 28 years ago in Thong Lane, Gravesend. In the weeks and months afterwards he says the hospital helped him adjust and become independent.
Previous to his accident he had enjoyed martial arts, and it remained in the back of his mind that he would like to carry on. When he had approached other clubs they “weren’t very enthusiastic” but Frank took him on board straight away. “Frank was very open,” Paul recalls. “I went along and joined in with the class. There’s quite a lot of leg work but when there is a kick I will do a punch or a certain sequence that does the same thing.
“I don’t know any other wheelchair taekwondo players. But it’s great, it gives you confidence and gets you fit, and you’re learning self defence at the same time.”
The 49-year-old, who works as a learning support assistant at North West Kent College, has also played wheelchair basketball for Kent. “People’s attitudes have improved with the Paralympics but there is still unequal coverage. The Paralympics is still a separate event and at the London Marathon the wheelchair athletes don’t get funding,” Paul said.
Paralympic taekwondo isn’t a reality yet, and while Paul is keen to get more people in wheelchairs doing the sport, he is unsure over the logistics of wheelchair users competing against each other.
Instead, he gets a fair fight against able-bodied players, and even feels he has an advantage being lower to the ground.
Paul was also the first wheelchair-user for the Commonwealth Taekwondo Association, an umbrella organisation for clubs in the South of England of which Twin Dragons is a member.
From now on, the syllabus Frank taught Paul will be used for any other wheelchair user joining the association.
“They just went with what I brought to them,” Frank said. “In future anybody coming along, whichever club they go to, I will be advising what syllabus they should do.”