Ms. Wheelchair Maryland Promotes Self-Defense

by Kelly Rouba

Cathy Porter, Ms. Wheelchair Maryland 2007, is more than just a pretty face. She is also a woman of remarkable strength. And in an effort to carry out her platform, Porter is on a mission to help other wheelchair users learn self-defense techniques that could save their lives in the event of an attack.

“The most important thing, you’ve got to know is what your wheelchair can do,” said Porter, who has cerebral palsy and worked as an in-store security guard for over 16 years. “When somebody’s trying to take you down, you use that chair any way you can because they can’t move it.”

Knowing the strength of her own power wheelchair helped Porter to ward off a mugger when he attempted to steal her purse in her own neighborhood about three years ago. “He came up on my lap first and went nose-to-nose with me. And it really did scare me because, to tell you the truth, I never got attacked before, even working in the field of security, I never did,” Porter said.

Her first reaction was to say to the man, “Whatever you’re going to do, let’s get it done, but get up off my leg.” Then Porter made the split decision to fight off her attacker by quickly swinging her wheelchair around and knocking the man to the ground.

That particular day, I had just come back from the grocery store and I had canned goods on the back of my wheelchair, so after the man fell to the ground, he was hit by the cans as I spun around, Porter recalled. She then ran the mugger over with her wheelchair and broke his leg. “He was very, very surprised and very scared,” she said.

The man then began to hobble away, but the police quickly caught up with him. As the mugger attempted to climb over a fence, the K-9 dog bit him. “He got five stitches in the behind,” Porter said.

But, unbeknownst to her, Porter wasn’t yet out of harm’s way. Upon returning home, Porter found three burglars in her bedroom, who were in the process of stealing her medications. “I went down the hallway and saw their eyes in the doorway,” she recalled.

With her adrenaline still pumping, Porter used her wheelchair to run into her bedroom door. Even though two of the men managed to get away, Porter was able to corner the third one. “Again, I used my chair and went up on his heels. I was rubbing it in and made him bleed,” she said. Even though he escaped before the police could arrive, he did not go unscathed.

While the three burglars may have gotten away, the mugger did go to jail, Porter said. “When you do something like that and you can handle (defending yourself), it makes you feel so good inside,” she said, adding, “If (the mugger) got away with it that time, he would get away with it the next time and the next time.”

Porter, who was crowned Ms. Wheelchair Maryland last November, centered her platform on self-defense in hopes of helping others who may someday find themselves in similar situations. “The crime nowadays is three times what it was when I was a teenager,” the 56-year-old said. “In my case, the mugging was for the money. He was a drug addict. A lot of guys will go for the rape. You’ve got to learn how to protect yourself because a lot of these guys out there will think you’re an easy target (if you’re in a wheelchair).”

According to Porter, it was after the start of her career in security that she learned ways to protect herself. At first, however, her position didn’t require much interaction with criminals. Instead, she simply monitored security cameras at Value City and alerted coworkers of problems.

“When you’re in a wheelchair, people always take ideas that you can’t do anything. When I first did the security, I was watching to see if anyone went out the door. I wasn’t doing the running bit,” she said.

But, a fellow employee with polio encouraged her to learn how to protect herself anyway. “He wanted to make sure I could handle myself in case a situation came up,” Porter said.

With that, she began developing self-defense techniques to help her in the event of an attack. “When something goes down, you never know what the situation is going to be, so you’ve got to be quick (to react),” she said.

Porter eventually moved on to work for businesses like Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Weis Food Stores. “When you work at big stores, like Home Depot and Lowe’s, you’ve got to know what you’re doing,” she said.

As part of her job, Porter kept watch to see if anyone was stealing or trying to scam cashiers. When I caught individuals in the act, “I would have to help take them down. I always made sure that I had back up. So if went to take somebody down, there were always two guys with me. I can take them down myself, no problem, but it’s better to have two guys with you in case there’s a problem. You never know who’s with them.”

Porter later took a position at Arundel Mills Mall, the largest shopping mall in Maryland. And her performance on the job got her a promoted to security lieutenant in 1998. At first, her male coworkers were disgruntled by the fact that a disabled woman had been placed in a supervisory role. But after they saw Porter race her wheelchair over to a thief and use it to knock him down and flip him over so she could places him in handcuffs, they gained a whole new level of respect for her.

“When I showed (the other security guards) what I could do, it was a whole different category. After that, I had no problem with them. They all respected me for my ability—not for what they think I couldn’t do, but for what I could do,” Porter said.

Today, Porter travels around the state of Maryland to share her message about the importance of self-defense and security for the wheelchair user. She also hands out a pamphlet with tips called “Wheels of Protection” that her sister Nancy Carey helped her to design. However, she said some of the tips might not be right for everyone since they depend on a person’s ability and level of comfort in a situation of attack. “You know what you can do and what you can’t do. So, you do what you think you would be comfortable for you to do,” Porter said.

But, whether you decide to fight or flee, “don’t let (the criminal) get the better hand on you and don’t show fear because if you show fear, he’s going to eat it up,” she added.

Cathy Porter is available for appearances. She can be reached at


(Tips taken from the pamphlet “Wheels of Protection.”)

Have a Personal Protection Kit. A personal protection kit is a necessity for all wheelchair users. Porter recommends kits include the following:
* Cell phone with charger to call for help.
* Can of mace or hairspray (preferably aerosol for easy use) to spray in the face of the attacker(s) to allow time to escape
* Mini flashlight to help you see in the dark
* Small tool kit containing a hammer/screwdriver. It can be used as a weapon or to repair your wheelchair if needed.*
* Small notepad and pencil to write down description of suspicious behavior or details of your attacker
* Mini tape recorder to record the details when writing is difficult
* Whistle — SOUND draws attention
* Purchase a small bag to put these “security” items in. Attach the bag to your wheelchair and roll away with a new sense of security confidence.

*At one of Porter’s appearances, a woman told her that she tried using mace and ended up getting it in her eyes. Porter then found a tiny hammer with a screwdriver for her to use instead. “Really, there’s two ways you could use it, you could beat him or you could stab him,” she said.

When Porter suggests this option to people, they often question whether she would really use the device to harm someone. “You would be surprised how you’d feel when somebody is trying to hurt you. Your adrenaline starts coming up,” she replies.

Five Steps of Protection

The more knowledge you have, the better your chances are of protecting yourself in the event of an attack. From personal experience in the field of security and as a victim, I learned five steps of protection that can help anybody, Porter states.


As a wheelchair user, your senses sharpen with time. Your senses of sound, sight, and smell alert you to danger, especially when you are traveling alone.

Sight: Watch for shadows—they will alert you to someone coming up behind you. Also, beware of persons dressed differently in an effort to conceal their identity, like those wearing dark clothing in heat waves or sunglasses at night or during inclement weather. “My attacker was wearing sweat pants and a jacket with a hood in the heat of summer,” Porter said.

Sound: Listen to footsteps, talking, or music. When traveling alone, these sounds will alert you to danger.

Smell: Aftershave, perfume, or body odor will also alert you to danger.


Fear will come when the attacker faces you. If possible, look in their eyes and try to memorize their features. This is the moment when they will try to take advantage of you. This is the moment when you decide to FLEE or FIGHT. Don’t make this decision lightly. Within seconds you will be required to take action by handing over what they request, or you can attempt to stay and fight.

Under no circumstances do I recommend you fight, Porter said, adding, it’s a decision you, and only you, can make at that moment.

NOTE: Attackers come in all shapes and sizes and can be male or female. Your decision to fight should depend on their size. Porter also recommends that wheelchair users keep their seatbelt on at all times. If an attacker is planning to rape you, it will take them some effort to figure out where the seatbelt unbuckles and that will give you time to escape. However, most attackers are after your purse, so it’s important to keep valuable ID and money in a secure place, she noted.

To protect your purse:

Secure your purse strap to your wheelchair to make it more difficult to snatch. If it is a clutch purse, secure it behind you out of sight. Also, many wheelchair manufacturers make bags that that attach underneath your wheelchair and are extremely difficult for others to access. Those who are able to reach under their wheelchair might want to consider this option.


The “snatch” is usually forceful. For those with limited arm mobility, this could be very painful. Your purse is not worth injury.

REMINDER: Your purse is not your protection kit. Use your cell phone, use your whistle, or scream for help…do whatever you can to draw attention to yourself.


If you decide to fight, remember to use your assets. If you have upper arm strength, use it to twist the wrist of your attacker to force them down. If you have a power wheelchair, use it to knock them down. Most importantly, do what you feel capable of doing to protect yourself. “You give it what you’ve got and don’t worry about what people think,” Porter said.


Your wheelchair can be your BEST FORM OF PROTECTION. It’s your most powerful weapon. It can take down an attacker and allow you time to flee.

Use Your Wheelchair to Ward off Attackers

Power Chairs: They are heavy and have POWER — a BIG source of protection for you. You can use the wheelchair to force an attacker into a corner while you use your cell phone to call for help. With access to power in your control, you can easily whip your wheelchair around to take the attacker off-balance, giving you time to escape.

Scooter: Small and maneuverable, but nonetheless, useful in preventing an attack. Its power is also your source of escape. You can also whip the wheelchair around to take your attacker off-balance.

Manual: This type of wheelchair requires manual power, but it can still be used to help you escape from an attacker. Most people who utilize a manual wheelchair have strong upper body strength. Use it to your advantage. You can also whip around to take your attacker off-balance to provide time to “roll” quickly away to safety. Hold firm on one tire while you forcefully roll the other tire forward. This momentum will force the chair into a circle spin.

No matter what type of wheelchair you have, “it’s going to be your biggest weapon because it will take a person down in a minute flat,” Porter said. If someone is rushing towards you, run your wheelchair full force into the person to knock him or her down, she said.

Also, Porter suggests that wheelchair users attach a mirror to the arm of their chair so they can see behind them at all times. Additionally, when out in public, attach a double plastic bag of canned goods to the back of the wheelchair since they add weight and can be helpful in the performing the “whip” technique, which knocked Porter’s attacker to the ground.


The decision to flight or flee is not one to take lightly, cautions Robert Otterstatter of the National Crime Prevention Council. Otterstatter, has taught both civilian and self-defense classes, along with police defensive tactics for many years. He has also worked with many individuals with disabilities, including the hearing impaired, amputees, and those in wheelchairs.

“When it comes to abilities, there is always somebody bigger, faster, and stronger than you are,” he said. “Anything, money, anything material can be replaced for the most part. If it means your safety versus not giving up your purse, give up your purse. Typically, people carry less than $100 anyway. Is it worth $100 or not?”

Adrian Cruz, who works in the security field and has trained hundreds of security guards in the New York area, agrees. “The best thing to do is run away,” he said. “Have your cell phone in your hand and be ready to run.”

But, even more importantly, there are ways to avoid dangerous situations or areas in the first place, Cruz said. “Be aware of your surroundings, anywhere you go. Try to go where it’s well lit and there are a lot of people.”

And never walk alone. “If you have a disability, make sure to ask a personal assistant or security guard to accompany you,” Cruz said. “And call people to tell them you’re on your way.”

Cruz also recommends that people carry items that makes a lot of noise or will aid them in case of an attack. “You should carry some type of device that is going to help you if you get attacked, like those portable sirens that attach to your keys,” he said, adding, “I don’t really like to suggest mace. A lot of civilians buy mace and they don’t know how to use it. Something could go wrong.”

While Cruz tries not to recommend that civilians confront their attackers, he said it all depends on the situation and the skill level of the attacker. “Most of them are not trained. All they go on is fear. They are hoping they are putting fear in you and that’s enough to scare you,” he said.

However, there are always occasions when an attacker is well trained and well prepared, although they may not appear to be at first. “So that’s why it’s hard to judge people,” Cruz said.

“If (the person) believes that they can flee safely, then they should always chose that route. But, if they are in a position when they cannot (and) they are cornered…at that point is when you stand your ground,” said Otterstatter.

“If you have training in self-defense and you’re in a life and death situation, go ahead and do what you were trained for,” Cruz added.

But, choosing to fight should also depend on whether or not you believe you’re capable of fending of your attacker. “It all depends on your physical ability to perform self-defense techniques,” Cruz said, adding, “You have to have a certain degree of being in shape.”

If you have gone through any type of self-defense training, it’s important to practice what you’ve learned and take refresher courses. “If you do any type of training, you’ve got to keep it up,” Cruz said. “People can’t take classes once every few years and expect to remember what they learned during an attack.”


Local law enforcement officials typically offer self-defense classes for people with disabilities. Also, martial arts schools or self-defense instructors are often willing to provide one-on-one instruction to individuals of all abilities.

“If somebody is an instructor of self-defense, usually it doesn’t matter what kind of client comes in their door, whether they have a disability or not,” Cruz said.

According to Cruz, instructors can tailor their program based upon the person’s ability. “The moves they teach you are adaptable for those in a wheelchair,” he said.

Instructors help you learn how to get out of difficult situations, like when someone sneaks up behind you or if they force you to the ground. The same techniques taught to people to help them avoid being attacked from behind in their car or on the subway can be taught to wheelchair users, Cruz said.

“Many techniques for long-ago warriors were designed to overcome or be utilized from compromising situations, such as being seated, attacks from behind, etc., and may be applicable (to) a disabled person’s situation. Also, many other techniques may be modified to accommodate varied challenges,” Otterstatter added.

For more information, check out these Web sites: (Users can find just about any type of class in their area, including self-defense) (Lists self-defense group) (Lists tips for crime prevention) (Course on rape prevention for people with disabilities)


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