Every Thursday morning Carolyn Raborn can be found at Siskin’s Fitness Center leading the Tai Chi wheelchair class she began as a student eight years ago.
After a serious car accident, Raborn lost her husband and suffered a spinal cord injury that cost her mobility. Her exercise physiologist at Siskin Hospital suggested she join UC Foundation Professor and Medical Anthropologist Dr. Zibin Guo’s pilot study with the hospital as part of his research on wheelchair Tai Chi. This modified version of the ancient martial and healing art makes Tai Chi accessible to individuals with ambulatory impairment and works to transform the wheelchair from an assistive device into a tool of empowerment.
“She loved it. Ever since, she gained confidence. She began walking. Her doctors, everybody, were so impressed. She just took off. That’s the effect of wheelchair Tai Chi I was hoping for. It changed her way of thinking and her confidence. She’s happy now,” Guo says.
Eventually, the student became the teacher. Through the case study, Raborn met Guo (who developed the program) and William Johnson (who taught the course), who inspired her to eventually become an instructor for the program. Raborn now leads Tai Chi sessions for others with ambulatory impairment.
“Tai Chi is a wonderful way for me to give back. To honor all those that helped me along the way and to maybe give a hand up to those who are starting their journey. It truly helps to see someone living life in a wheelchair when one is new to it,” Raborn says.
Raborn still practices Tai Chi with one other who began the program when she did. Through the years, they’ve gained recruits and have truly become a family.
“I cannot change reality, but I can change people’s minds.”
“We always find someone to discriminate against. We always find someone to laugh at. We always find someone to marginalize,” Guo says.
As an applied Medical Anthropologist, Guo’s interest in the field is rooted in his belief that by studying and understanding human behavior, we can apply what we learn to change socially created stigmas for the better.
In addition to the physical benefits of Tai Chi, including the proven improvements for people with conditions such as Fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Stroke, and rheumatoid arthritis, Tai Chi is just as healthy for the mind. Guo recognized that with patients like Raborn, whose lives were shaken and mobility altered so strikingly fast, maintaining physical health was not the only priority; many needed to maintain emotional health as well.
Guo began studying martial arts as a kid in China when he was seven. He didn’t start his training in Tai Chi until he was around 16 years-old. As he speaks, the fluid movement of his hands and gestures demonstrate his years of fluency with the form. For him, Tai Chi is a philosophy, a culture that he wants to make available to populations of people who were once excluded.
“One of the things I discovered is that in order to make change and to create a society where everybody would have an equal chance to enjoy life, we must empower those who think or were taught that in some way they are inferior,” Guo explains. “I cannot change reality, but I can change people’s minds.”
Guo receives grant to work with U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs
Over the summer, Guo traveled from Chattanooga to Murfreesboro twice a week to lead a wheelchair Tai Chi course at the Veterans’ Medical Center.
This relationship was conceived when the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs sought to enhance more alternative, complementary forms of medicine and rehabilitation. The department was already implementing Tai Chi in their programs, but was unaware such a form existed for individuals in wheelchairs until they found a video similar to this one on YouTube. They contacted Guo and encouraged him to apply for one of their grants.
Guo eventually received $78,271 from the Department of Veteran’s Affairs to promote a Wheelchair Tai Chi Chuan (WTCC) program as a sport alternative for veterans with ambulatory limitations. The team will conduct WTCC instructor training workshops with VA recreational therapists and veterans with mobility limitations, as well as develop DVDs for instructors and practitioners’ reference.