Atlanta, GA,
12:00 PM

Self-Defense Class Helps Wheelchair Users Prevent Attacks and Defend Themselves

Shepherd Center offers class to former patients and community members.

A few years ago, Leif Grant was shopping in a large store in Chattanooga, Tenn., when he realized a man with a menacing manner was following him.

No problem, you might think, for Leif, who is a martial arts instructor and skilled at defending himself. But he also has been a wheelchair user since 1991, when he contracted a rare viral infection that resulted in a complete T-7 to -8 spinal cord injury requiring rehabilitation at Shepherd Center. If Leif’s shopping experience had been filmed in Hollywood, the menacing man would have attacked, and Leif would have used his self-defense skills to prevail and go home a hero. But this was real life. Leif found a store employee, explained the situation and asked him to accompany him. When he pointed out the stalker, the man fled.

“Prevention is self-defense, too,” Leif explained during a self-defense class he recently taught to wheelchair users at Shepherd Center. “If you can avoid a confrontation or talk your way out of it, that’s the best way to defuse a situation. The best way is to be prepared.”

The class was one of two Leif taught in February 2016, and he will teach again later this year, although dates have not yet been set.

“We see self-defense for wheelchair users as part of the training to get patients ready to go out into their communities and continue their rehabilitation and healing,” said Kelly Edens, manager of the recreation therapy program at Shepherd Center. "We offer a variety of leisure-time activities such as art, sports, horticulture and so forth. This class provides the safety aspect."

Self-defense for wheelchair users has particular significance because men with disabilities are twice as likely to be attacked as men who are able-bodied, according to U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics. Women with disabilities are three times more likely to be attacked.

A recent attack on a woman with a disability who was shopping at a department store in Atlanta prompted Minna Hong, manager of Shepherd Center’s Spinal Cord Injury Peer Support Program, to request a class for the local wheelchair community, as well as a class for inpatients.

“Two young men punched this woman in the stomach, grabbed her purse and cell phone and ran,” Minna said. “Security cameras caught all of it. As a hospital, we want people to know we hear you, and if we can, we want to provide some self- defense training like this.”

Leif, 37, has a black belt in a Filipino martial art called Kali, and during the classes, he demonstrated several techniques with his wife and former student, Rachel. The best way to learn the techniques is to find a studio and a willing instructor, he said.

“The exercise keeps you healthy, strong and limber,” he said. “Socializing with other people is important, too, and once you learn the techniques, they are yours forever.”

Leif emphasized that the most important aspect of self-defense is “actionable awareness” – taking note of your surroundings and being prepared to change plans quickly.

“Make sure you’re ready,” Leif said. “Make sure you have a backup plan.”

And if ever confronted by someone with a gun or knife, he added: “Give them what they want – money, car keys, credit cards, whatever -- they can be easily replaced. They are not worth losing your life over."

For more information on upcoming self-defense classes, contact Kelly Edens at 404-350-7793 or

By Phillip Jordan
Photos by Louie Favorite


About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.