Adaptive Kayaking Gives Freedom to People with Disabilities

6-minute read

Adaptive kayaking is one of the best ways people with disabilities can experience freedom and enjoyment in the great outdoors—specifically on the water.

people with disabilities enjoy kayaking on a small lake

A group of kayakers enjoying their time on the water (photo courtesy of Waypoint Adventure)

Why Is It So Important We Make Kayaking Accessible to People with Disabilities?

We asked this question of several people who are actively involved in helping folks with special needs get on the water in human-powered boats.

Dan Minnich, co-founder and Executive Director of Waypoint Adventure in Massachusetts, answered it this way: “For all of the same reasons it’s important for anyone to have access to paddling! Paddling allows people to explore an environment that would not be possible without a boat or paddleboard. It’s peaceful, challenging, beautiful, relaxing, inspiring, and is often a great way to connect with other people.”

One of Waypoint’s trip leaders added, “Because it's fun, and everyone should be able to. It gives you an up-close view of nature that you can't get from shore.”

Isn’t that true? People with disabilities do have some limitations in what they can do. But physical challenges like visual impairment, spinal cord injuries, balance issues, lower limb amputation, special needs and limited mobility don't have to stop people from enjoying a high quality of life.

Kayaking, paddleboarding and canoeing—paddle sports—have been made accessible to those with even severe disabilities by innovative people who were dedicated to taking action.

Adaptive paddling programs have opened the door for people of all abilities to be on equal footing with others once they’re on the water. They can have a meaningful, fun paddling experience like everyone else.

two women in a kayak on the water with other kayakers in the background

Kayakers with Waypoint Adventure (photo courtesy of Waypoint Adventure)

Chelsea Elder, Executive Director of Colorado-based Adaptive Adventures, had this to add: “It’s important for everyone to get outside and get active, and kayaking is a great way to do that. There’s something so therapeutic about being on the water and this is especially true for people with disabilities. For some, the opportunity to get out of their wheelchair and into a boat is a new sense of freedom propelling themselves in the water. 

“One of the services we provide is paddling programs for specific rehab hospitals and their inpatients who are within six weeks of recovery from an injury or illness. We see incredible physical, emotional and social benefits by taking them out kayaking or paddle boarding. We often hear comments such as ‘I thought my life was over’ or ‘I didn't know it was possible for me.’ We get to experience that ‘aha’ moment where the perceived impossible becomes possible. 

“You can see the joy and hope on the individual's face when they launch into the water. Additionally, you see the relief and excitement on their families' faces as they realize that the future will be much brighter and these transferrable skills will help daily living tasks.”

Meaningful Stories Abound

Dan shared a couple of stories with us that we want to share with you:

“A man in his 50s joined us for an afternoon paddle on Walden Pond. That evening he sent me an email saying he'd been wrestling with depression for the past six months and wondering why he should keep living. The afternoon we'd had together answered that question—he had so much to live for. Life was a gift and he could enjoy it!”

“This past summer I got to take a family kayaking. They have three kids. One daughter was recovering from being in a coma for 10 months. They told me afterward that our adventure was the first experience they'd had since her injury that wasn't focused on her recovery and that engaged their whole family in something fun together.”

man and woman help another woman in a wheelchair get on a paddleboard

Adaptive paddle sports programs help as many people enjoy these great activities as they can (photo courtesy of Adaptive Adventures)

Chelsea had one of her own to share:

“One of my favorite stories is that of a disabled veteran who attended our Intro to Paddling sessions with the VA. He was struggling with Post Traumatic Stress and was very closed off when he began the program. They went through a series of sessions learning to self-rescue, skill progressions and experienced intro to moving water. He then attended a multi-day self-support river trip with us. 

“He divulged that he had been extremely depressed and felt like giving up, but participating in the program made him feel free. He continued that it got him out of his house and enjoying life again in community with others. It was truly life-saving for him—a transformative experience."

These stories demonstrate the true hope programs like Waypoint Adventures and Adaptive Adventures provide for those with disabilities.

Whether they facilitate a participant's first time on the water, offer adaptive paddling workshops, teach kayaking skills, offer the aid of a personal care attendant or the use of adaptive kayak equipment, these programs and others help give universal access to so many who wouldn't otherwise have that chance.

What Accessories are Available on the Market for Adaptive Paddling?

There are several small companies—often family businesses—that design and make adaptive equipment for paddling. Most of them are here in the US, although we found one in the UK too. These companies are helping paddlers of all abilities enjoy the wonderful sports of kayaking, canoeing and paddleboarding.

Creating Ability, a Minnesota business, has been designing and manufacturing adaptive kayak accessories since 2004. Starting with their Universal Paddling Seat, they’ve since developed completely outfitted kayaks, stabilizing outriggers, a Kayak Chariot, a transfer bench, wrist and hand adaptations and more.

Angle Oar is California-based maker of adaptive paddling gear including its Versa Paddle, carts, outriggers and mounts. Their products are also designed to help those with shoulder injuries and diminishing strength, “with the goal of keeping our customers as independent and active as possible, for as long as possible.”

Dillenschneider Designs, based in Wisconsin, makes the One-Arm Freedom Canoe Paddle to aid adaptive canoeists. They say, “With the use of only one arm you can access the sport of canoeing. Solo or tandem you can perform all major strokes used in unobstructed flat water canoe environments.”

(Our sister company, Bending Branches, featured the One-Arm Freedom paddle on their blog recently.)

a man helps a wheelchair-bound man with the one-arm freedom canoe paddle

A gentleman gets adjusted to the One-Arm Freedom Canoe Paddle (photo courtesy of Adaptive Adventures)

The Freedom Kayaks innovators, based in Georgia, have developed a kayak that people can enter with or without the use of their legs—great news for those with spinal cord injuries or are lower limb amputees. “Our mission is to provide more people with 100% independence on the water.”

A UK-based company, Active Hands makes gripping aids that work in many environments, including kayaking and other paddle sports.

What’s the Biggest Challenge?

Chelsea describes the biggest challenge she sees that prevents people with disabilities from getting on the water: “The biggest challenge is awareness that it’s possible for people with physical disabilities to participate in adventure and recreational sports. We receive calls every day from individuals who’ve been on the couch for years, not knowing the opportunities that exist.

“There are adaptive sport programs across the country and individuals can acquire their own equipment through companies like Creating Ability. There are also many equipment grants available through various organizations.”

The easiest way to find an adaptive kayaking program near you is through an online search. Just type in “adaptive kayaking program near me” and the search engines will pull up what you’re looking for. Or type in “adaptive kayaking program [your country or state].”

It just might change your life or the life of someone you love!

Do you have paddle questions our friendly Customer Service Team can help you with today? Contact them: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]

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