As a 5-year-old judo pupil, Jeff Kohn saw how his teacher treated his students with respect and high expectations, even those who were blind and deaf. Nearly 50 years later, Kohn, now the sensei of the North Shore Dojo in Glenview, brings that same attitude to classes with a wide variety of students with special needs.
"You never have the same menu with these kids, and when they all get into the dojo, they seem like they all work together very nicely," says Kohn, who has trained U.S. National martial arts teams and is a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee. "Their difficulties don't seem that different once they all put on a karate suit and train."
Kohn says karate and other martial arts can be especially effective training tools for children with disabilities. "It gives the kids the idea of focus, the idea of concentration and more importantly, the idea of goals and achieving something," he says, noting that many of his students have difficulty learning the complex forms known as "katas."
"When they perform a kata, it's like a breakthrough for them and it gives them other ideas for how to figure something out. They've challenged something and achieved something, and they've enjoyed it. So they move onto a more difficult kata, or a more difficult task in school."
The training has done wonders for Kohn's students. Michael McCarthy, a 12-year-old who uses two prosthetic legs, first came to the dojo six years ago, largely unable to walk. Today he is a black belt who shatters boards, competes in national competitions and bounds around the dojo making hot chocolate for visitors.
Michael's next goal is the annual Kohl's Step Up for Kids stair-climb, where he previously scaled 40 flights of the Aon Center. His goal this year is 60. "He was strong before (karate), but now he's really developed into a true athlete," says his mother, Julie McCarthy.
Kohn's accomplishments have not come through coddling his kids-students and parents alike emphasize his "tough-love" attitude. In his office, a young boy walks in with his gi askew. Kohn looks down with a grin. "Hi, Tyler, you need some help?"
A soft "yes."
"Well, you gotta ask for it, young man."
The boy, who has speech disabilities, mumbles and Kohn shakes his head. "Ooh, can't hear that. My ears are a little bad …"
Tyler makes a clear request and Kohn assists him. Moments later, the boy is on the dojo floor with his peers, all smiling as they edge along balance beams and throw series of jabs and blocks.
For Deborah Early, whose son Michael is also a student, Kohn's attitude is refreshing. "I think that in the world of special needs kids and kids in general, there's too much praise, 'oh, you're doing a wonderful job,' even when they're not," she says. "Unless you're given honest feedback that's clear and direct … you're never going to improve."
The results speak for themselves: Kohn's students show marked improvement in physicality and self-confidence, says Audrey Suffrin, who does public relations with Kohn's non-profit foundation, Karate Can-Do! "It's miraculous because a lot of the conventional science would have said, 'OK, you can expect them to go this high,'" Suffrin says. "And Sensei (says) 'no.'"
Despite his accomplishments, Kohn maintains a marked modesty.
"It's been exciting and it's been challenging," he says of his
work. "But mostly it's been very humbling."
The North Shore Dojo still has openings in many programs. More information is available at www.north shoredojo.net.
Darren McRoy is a junior at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and intern with Chicago Parent.