From outriggers canoeing to and rafting, paddle sports have become wildly popular in the disabled community in recent years. Part of the reason is due to their relative affordability and the extensive lakes, rivers, and shorlines available across the U.S. Happily, children and adults with disabilities are safely experiencing new freedom, exploring nature’s waterways in increasing numbers.
Typically, few or no modifications to standard equipment are needed. As a sport, paddling emphasizes the individual’s ability, with water acting as the great equalizer. Instruction is essentially the same for everyone.
Kayaks come in different lengths, widths, and hull shapes designed for various types of water conditions. They are usually made from lightweight, modern materials such as Kevlar, fiberglass, and polyethylene plastic. The basic design and concept of the kayak is ageless. Its beauty lies in its simplicity and adaptability.
As is the case with all kayakers, disabled individuals must choose the type of kayak that meets their specific needs. The four primary kayak styles are 1) sit-on-top or “open decked,” 2) sea or “touring,” 3) white-water, and 4) inflatable. Kayaks also come in solo or tandem designs. The tandem works especially well for beginners, children, people with visual impairments, and those who can only generate limited paddling power.
A growing number of adaptive kayaking programs integrate disabled and able-bodied paddlers on the same trip, or in the same boat. The American Canoe Association (ACA), which promotes the benefits of canoeing and kayaking for everyone, has published a book entitled “Canoeing and Kayaking for Persons with Physical Disabilities.”
Although standard kayaks and canoes are often used for adults and children with disabilities, modifications can make the experience more enjoyable. The rule of thumb with adaptations is use as much standard equipment as possible. Once adaptations have been made, common sense and creative problem solving will usually cover any other situations. Various changes to seating systems, paddle grips, and leg position can create a more efficient and safe paddling environment. Common materials such as foam, duct tape, plastic chairs, camping seats, old bike tubes, boat buoys, and other readily available supplies work well for countless adaptations.
Safety considerations are paramount in all water sports. The most important rule is that all participants be able to handle themselves in the water and, in the case of kayaks which confine occupants, know how to upright an overturned craft. Other considerations include proper clothing, approved personal flotation devices (life jackets), sun protection, ease of exit from the cockpit, and always paddling with a partner.
One Athlete’s Experience
On a spring morning a year ago in March, Laurie met Walter and his friend, Chuck Williams, at the University of North Florida Lake. After picking her up and setting her into the front cockpit of a red tandem kayak, Walter began to stabilize Laurie’s upper body, fitting foam on either side of her hips, behind her back, and under her knees. Once she was comfortable in the cockpit, he made adaptations to the paddles. Using two tile trowels, tiny pieces of foam and several inches of duct tape, he fit the paddles to her hands. The whole process took about 30 minutes. Then it was time to go kayaking.
Except for a brief stint of aqua therapy in the mid-1990s, it was the first time Laurie had been in the water for 15 years. “When we slid into the water from shore, it was like being home again,” remembers Laurie. “We paddled around for about an hour. I wanted to roll over. I wanted to paddle backwards. I wanted to race. My cheeks hurt from smiling so much. I never wanted that experience to end and I haven’t been the same since.”
After taking that first plunge into kayaking, Laurie emerged from depression and embraced a new direction in life. “I believe anyone can and should try kayaking at least once,” she affirmed. “As a quadriplegic, when I sit in the cockpit with pads stabilizing my balance and the proper adaptations to my paddle, I’m in total control of the situation. It’s empowering.”
Last October, Walter and Laurie partnered to establish the Disabled Paddlers Association (DPA), a not-for-profit organization open to a cross-section of the disabled community. They want to introduce inclusive and accessible paddling opportunities for everyone. “Our membership welcomes the able and the disabled alike,” says Laurie. “We encourage family members and friends to join us.”
The young group’s first major outing was this past March, a “Spirit of Suwanee” paddling overnighter with meals and entertainment. For details on the Disabled Paddlers Association, call Laurie Murrelle at 904-285-2097.
As for Laurie and her newly-found pastime, she stresses, “It’s a fantastic feeling to look back at my wheelchair sitting on the shore without me in it!”