Updated: Apr 21, 2022
In celebration of Ikkaido's eight-year anniversary, we spoke to founder and CEO of the charity, Ray Sweeney, about what inspired him to create Ikkaido, how the charity came to be, and what enabled him to overcome some of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles along the way.
What was your motivation for creating IKKAIDO?
Ray Sweeney pictured coaching inclusive martial arts.
"Very early on, I was introduced to a Paralympian and his coach who were two incredibly inspiring men. They had attended a very small inclusive martial arts session for people with disabilities. I had such great fun teaching groups of 6 disabled young people for an entire day and I expressed that I wanted to create a Disability Karate Federation. He said to me that if you do this people will put their foot out to trip you up, stab you in the back and turn their backs on you. But if you don't do it, who will. If not for that last sentence, I don't think I would have been able to do this. I would have given up long ago. I came to realise that it was true; that if I didn't do it then no one would. I held onto that during the toughest times."
"If you do this, people will put their foot out to trip you up, stab you in the back and turn their backs on you. But if you don't do it, who will?"
How did IKKAIDO start?
"The idea behind Ikkaido was born over 20 years ago. I wanted to do something other than running businesses and I decided to uproot my family and move to Spain. I started a karate club on the basis that the rich would pay more and the disadvantaged would pay less or nothing. It soon became apparent that social services were sending disabled and disadvantaged people to my sessions. The club grew exponentially to become the largest in the Community of Valencia, despite being in a small village. People were travelling 30 miles to come to the sessions and had a wide range of disabilities and health conditions. When I returned to the UK, I was contacted by someone from Oxfordshire County Council who told me that they had heard about what I was doing in Spain, and asked me to meet them to discuss setting up disability karate sessions. I started the first sessions of disability karate in England with just one person attending. Two weeks later, I had 25, and a month later, 125.
The vision has always been the same. Originally, we created education for coaches in order to make martial arts more accessible. Then I realised that more was needed - education should be made available for people with all kinds of disabilities. Education leads naturally to employment, and I thought what would be better than an organisation that employs, trains and is managed by people with disabilities. Employment then led to entrepreneurship, which involved empowering people with disabilities to become self-employed change-makers in society. I thought that if I could do this, then I'd be able to solve most of the social exclusion issues faced by so many people."
Why martial arts?
"Martial arts appeared to be a perfect and untapped resource for facilitating people's personal development. I saw the changes in me that had come about through practising karate. I realised that I could use this to help other people. Martial arts are empowering. They encourage people to become better versions of themselves through increased self-confidence, self-motivation and self-development. Good coaches inspire people to respect the Seven Virtues of Bushido, which are benevolence, sincerity, politeness, patience, bravery, loyalty and fairness. The adoption of these characteristics develops leadership qualities.
If martial arts are about morality, self-development and leadership, then they should be for everyone. Accessibility is part of morality; helping people to enjoy the same benefits that society offers to everyone else. For me, the traditions of karate are about inclusion."
What is the biggest misconception about people with disabilities?
"Disabled people are you and me. They are us. We all become disabled in the end."
"The biggest misconception is 'people with disabilities are different to me.' 80% of people with disabilities become disabled between the ages of 16 and 65. Disabled people are you and me. They are us. We all become disabled in the end, or we die. Those are the two options."
What's the biggest lesson you learned over the years?
"The biggest lesson I learned is that people are the most important thing in life. If that's so, then the meaning of life is how can I help people to be the best that they can be. Meeting people who are struggling in life, listening to them and finding ways to help them is the only thing that is important to me. How could it be any other way?"
What is the accomplishment you’re most proud of achieving with IKKAIDO in the past 8 years?
"Developing the world's first inclusive and accessible education platform which educates disabled learners and makes learning easier for non-disabled people. This platform will contain qualifications (Activator, Activity Leader, Activity Coach) that aim to revolutionise the martial arts sector, teaching existing martial arts coaches how to safely coach all disabilities and backgrounds, as well as developing people with disabilities to become qualified coaches in a field with an abundance of physical and psychological health benefits.
Our team of disabled people developed the PRIMAE Platform with funding from the Erasmus Programme of the European Commission and in collaboration with partners from six EU countries."
What would you say to people with disabilities who are in a similar situation to you?
"There's no such thing as barriers. Barriers are things you go under, over, around, or you smash them out of your way. There are no limits. There are no barriers."
"The biggest barrier I faced was myself. People tend to be less aware of the constant fear and terror experienced by a lot of people who are autistic. For me, and for many others, it was the feeling of inadequacy and the fear of showing your true self to someone. This crippling self-awareness and control helps to manage the fear but also impedes the ability to form meaningful relationships and properly integrate into society. I was fortunate to eventually meet people that made me feel safe and comfortable to open up to. Good people gave me the resilience to cope with having been betrayed by people that I tried to help.
"You need to find the right place to be. Where you feel valued, safe and welcomed - never compromise on this. Somewhere where they listen to the sometimes crazy ideas that you have, and understand that in some of them, there truly are golden nuggets. This is the atmosphere that I wanted to reflect within IKKAIDO."
For those with visual impairments, technology is always changing and there is now a huge amount of helpful tools that did not exist 20 years ago. For those with learning disabilities and hearing impairments, this is also true. Never be afraid to ask for help."
Where do you see yourself in 5 years time?
I would like to be travelling less! By this time, I would like IKKAIDO to be handed over to younger people with probably more interesting or better ideas than I have had. If I cant teach someone to be better than me, I am no teacher at all."