Fighting silence: Deaf students learn confidence and self-defense through art of karate

Shannon Litz/Nevada AppealCoach Jan Lopas and student Chelsea Owen-Self talk during practice on Wednesday. Below, Loni Friedmann works with Lopas.

Shannon Litz/Nevada AppealCoach Jan Lopas and student Chelsea Owen-Self talk during practice on Wednesday. Below, Loni Friedmann works with Lopas.

They call themselves the Deaf Ninjas - a group of three Carson City young adults learning the art of karate at the Carson ATA Blackbelt Academy.

But they could just as easily be labeled revolutionaries. They may be the first ever all-deaf class to be certified and after 12 weeks were ready to earn their yellow belts.

"They learn incredibly fast," said Joan Lopas, who serves as their interpreter, along with Tori Robinson. "Karate is a visual language. They pay attention to every move."

Lopas started learning sign language as a way to communicate with her grandchildren before they were able to speak. She went on to study it at Western Nevada College where she met the students to whom she would later propose the deaf karate program.

ATA Academy owner Shawn Goodner was excited at the prospect.

"Every person should have the same opportunities in life," Goodner said. "If I can help create that, I will."

Lopas said she has seen a change in the students in the short time they've been studying, both physically and emotionally.

So has participant Loni Friedmann, 19.

"I'm proud," she signed. "I feel much stronger. It feels like I will always be able to protect myself from danger."

The next step, Lopas said, is to integrate them in with the hearing students. She said that will help them navigate better through their day-to-day lives as many of them have had negative experiences throughout their lives that lead them to distrust the hearing.

"To go out into the hearing world with self-confidence and respect I think will help them bridge that gap," said Lopas, who is getting certified along with the students.

The ultimate goal is to enroll the three in the leadership program so that they can become certified instructors to train other deaf children and adults.

"It's an easy way to help the deaf," signed participant Chelsea Owen-Self, 23. "We want to learn more and more."

But before they can, they must overcome some obstacles.

The first is cost. It will cost about $15,000 for the three to obtain all the certifications necessary. Lopas is looking for help with fundraising or grant ideas.

The other is time. In order to create the deaf program, the manual will need to be translated into American Sign Language. Lopas and Goodner are working together on that project.

In addition to the self-defense taught in karate, students also learn values such as respect, courtesy and loyalty.

"The life skills are an invaluable thing," Lopas said.

As is the ability to defend themselves and feel confident when out on their own, said participant Hugo Paniagua, 20.

"It's good to learn to fight," he signed. "It's hard, and I love it."

Lopas hopes the community can help get the program off the ground so it can continue for other deaf students.

"This is my heart's dream," she said.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment