I was just at Canoecopia in Madison, Wisconsin, this past weekend. As always, there were tons of great presentations on a wide variety of subjects relating to canoeing and kayaking. I attended one seminar on “adaptive paddling” which is a term used to describe that group of paddlers who need to make some type of modification to their equipment in order to compensate for some deficiency in physical ability (sounds like it could describe most of us at one time or another). Although, of course, we’re talking mainly about people who have some physical disability brought on by an accident, combat injury, progressive chronic disease, or birth defect.
Three of the presenters at this seminar were adults who need to use a wheelchair for mobility on land. What was so exciting for all of them was the fact that when they were using a kayak, they suddenly became just as free and mobile as anyone else on the water. From a small distance, no one is able to pick out the “disabled” paddlers in the group. It is a very freeing experience for people who are used to facing obstacles to their independent mobility just about everywhere they look to now suddenly be able to go wherever anyone else can go without a second thought.
Most disabled individuals need remarkably few modifications to their boats or paddles in order to get out on the water. In most cases, even for those who do need to make modifications, “less is more”. Any modifications that do need to be made should be
- Safe (paddler is stable and balanced, can do an easy wet exit, and has skin protection)
- Efficient (promotes optimal posture and compliments the paddler’s ability)
- Look “cool” and be durable (looks visually appealing and limits the amount that this boat will “stand out” from others)
The above criteria can often be accomplished at very little cost using foam and duct tape. For those needing more sophisticated modifications or who lack “do-it-yourself” skills, there are actually several products now available that can make it easier to adapt a canoe or kayak for a paddler with special needs. A company called “Creating Ability” makes a special modular seat that can be attached to a canoe or kayak. The parts of the seat can be adjusted or removed to fit the paddler and provide him/her with just the right amount of torso support needed. Some paddlers simply need to make their boats a bit more stable. This can be accomplished through the addition of outriggers, stabilizer floats, or fixed ballast. There are also products that can be added to a paddle shaft to assist people who lack grip strength or the ability to hold a paddle with their fingers. For canoeists who are unable to grasp a paddle with two hands, Cindy Dillenschneider, from Northland College, has developed a special canoe paddle that she calls “One-Arm Freedom”. Currently there is no website for the “One-Arm Freedom”, but you can contact Ms. Dillenschneider directly at email@example.com. Other options are the “One Arm Paddle” which is a one-handed canoe paddle and the “Angle Oar” which is a kayak paddle that can be used in a variety of different ways for those with difficulty holding and controlling a traditional kayak paddle.
In Wisconsin, there is a strong push within the Department of Natural Resources to provide accessible campsites, launch sites, and specially outfitted kayaks for disabled individuals. These specially outfitted kayaks are currently available for rent during the summer at five of the Wisconsin state parks, Devil’s Lake, Buckhorn, Mirror Lake, Perrot, and Council Grounds.
For many years, the American Canoe Association has provided Adaptive Paddling Workshops where instructors and disabled aspiring paddlers come together to learn ways to modify equipment and paddling techniques to make the sport more accessible to everyone. Upon completion of the workshop, the instructors receive a special endorsement that identifies them as having this extra training. The aspiring paddlers get help in modifying their boat and learning important safety skills like wet exits and rescues.
So if you know someone who has a physical disability or if you are a person with a physical disability, paddle sports may be a great way for you to get out and enjoy some healthy physical activity outdoors. Seek out an instructor with the ACA Adaptive Paddling endorsement or take one of the ACA Adaptive Paddling Workshops that are offered throughout the country and make it a point to get out on the water this year!