Written on behalf of the DEI Committee by Dr. Olga Shurchkov, Co-Chair (link for interview here)

When you see a person with Down syndrome, do you think it is possible that the person is a black belt? When you see someone with a disability, do you think it is possible that they are an international competitor? In our society, it is often the case that inclusion is a result of pity or charity. In ITF America, our adaptive members are included and developed for a different reason: because we recognize that they are assets with so much to give in terms of their drive, dedication, and pure joy of learning. This recognition and the value we place on these wonderful members of our community is the meaning of authentic inclusion.

On January 30, 2022, special needs educators and members of the ITF America DEI Committee, Mr. Billy Mahoney (VI Dan) and Ms. Vail-Marie Kendall (I Dan) spoke with two of ITF America’s most dedicated and tenacious adaptive members. Mr. Eric Cohen (VI Dan) and Mr. Caleb McFarland (I Dan) overcame tremendous challenges to achieve their rank and to continue training, helping others, and teaching the martial art that they love. Joined by Mr. McFarland’s instructor, Master Becky Faaborg (VII Dan and ITF America DEI Committee Co-Chair) and by their fathers, whose support and pride in their sons are as heartwarming as they are infectious, Mr. Cohen and Mr. McFarland share their stories and the way in which Taekwon-Do has played a crucial role in their lives.

Simply put: this interview will make you expand your definition of a “martial artist.” Is it someone naturally gifted, or someone who works tirelessly to get better? Is it someone infinitely loyal to their instructor, or someone who seeks glory for themselves? The interview will also make you look within and reflect on your own life journey. While many of us have had our doubts about continuing training at some particularly difficult points in time, Mr. Cohen and Mr. McFarland are surprised by the question! They have never, not even once, thought about quitting. “I love Taekwon-Do” is the reason Mr. McFarland gives for his perseverance. While some of us might have shied away from competing because of fear of defeat or failure, Mr. Cohen seeks out any and all tournaments he can participate in – no matter the outcome. His goal in life is to increase the opportunities for other students with special needs to have their own division at the ITF World Championships and World Cups.

Mr. Cohen and Mr. McFarland epitomize the tenet of indomitable spirit and serve as the best examples of how authentic inclusion of any person, from any diverse background, in Taekwon-Do can yield significant benefits to the organization, as well as to the individual. Watch the full interview that is equal parts joy and inspiration below.