Canoeing and Disabilities

-- Last Updated: Feb-01-04 8:21 PM EST --

JAN 29
I've worked for several summers as a counsellor at a residential summer camp for individuals with disabilities. These range from very abled people such as children with diabetes to people with learning disabilities to quadriplegics. I am an abled and qualified canoer, and this summer I have been asked to instruct canoeing sessions for the campers. These can be as varied and creative as I choose to make them, and do not have to be limited to technique. Any suggestions on how to make them inclusive and fun would be appreciated!!

I'm going to add a few more details about the specifics of my program, because I’m excited about how many great replies have been posted, and I’m hoping that you’ll be able to give me more useful tips!

My camp has coined the term “funafty” because fun and safety are our primary concerns. Within the canoeing program, safety has been well addressed due to the “high risk” nature of the activity. We have enough staff that there is usually at least one staff in each boat. However, the fun part of that combination could use improvement. Most campers come to 1-3 one-hour canoeing sessions throughout the course of their week at camp and the sessions can get very “dry” (and not for lack of water). Despite late arrivals, the time it takes to go over safety rules, review basic power stroke, and launch canoes, people always end up drifting around starring at their watches for the last 15 min.

Technique is not stressed as much as appreciation for boating in general.

Suggestions for games or ways to spice things up would be greatly appreciated! (Examples: Dressing up like pirates, relay/obstacle races, simon says, etc). Some campers have been coming every summer since before I was born, so I’m sure they (as well as the counsellors) would appreciated something besides a relaxing (aka BORING) paddle. However, these must remain simple enough for everyone to follow. Also, they can’t exceed 30 min in duration. Suggestions for short activities (2-5 min) are great though.

Dry-land programming ideas for bad weather days would be a bonus. I have several ideas thus far, and they don’t have to be limited to canoeing. The challenge of building a boat out of items found in nature (leaves, twigs, etc) has been a hit in the past, and I what to try “fishing” with a clothespin at the end of a string, where there “fish” have suggestions written on them such as “sing row row row your boat” and “explain why we wear PFDs”.

Thank you to everyone who replied to my post!

I note your phrase"as I make them". Perhaps you could let them choose the level of instruction, trip they want and nurture that.It sounds like you have expectations from "management(?) perhaps to “instruct”.Maybe you could empower…

There are a lot of people that keep a distance from the disabled. I’m always impressed by those with compassion towards others–There but for fortune go you or go I.

Take care, be well,Alex

you might want to consider teaching sit and switch style paddling. It is a little bit more intuitive then Jstrokes etc. That way the Clients get to the fun sooner.

God Bless you

handicapped paddlers
I’m Mrs. Lilydipper and I’ve worked with handicapped children for many years. The most important issue is making them feel secure in the canoe. Pairing a severly physically challenged person with more able-bodied people would give that person access to the fun without feeling out of control. The most difficult task will be getting them in and out of the canoe. Use a Hoyer lift on a stable dock and have lots of help. Be prepared for spasticity and lack of balance. Be sure to explain what you’re going to do with them before you do it, adding to their feeling of security, self control and participation. A person with no language often understands everything he hears. Your sense of confidence and assurances will be crucial to easing any fears they may have.

Gotta go to work. Feel free to ask anything and go into more specifics.


fun and inclusive
Reflecting back on instructing basic canoe at girl scout camp, with able bodied kids and years spent working with emotionally and developmentally challenged children, I am very impressed by the thought of taking a quadriplegic out in a canoe. Very curious what kind of seat support you use and how you get the individual into and out of the boat.

My training has always been to stress safety first. Buddy system, right from the start the kid has a pal and teaches them to be aware of their buddy. In the swim area counselors blow the whistle and yell buddy-check and everybody scrambles to hold the buddy’s hand high. For canoe buddies you could let them choose or pair them according to complimentary strengths.

Before we hit the water strokes were taught in the air and then practiced from a kneeling position on the dock. Simple one-word commands instilled on dry land (i.e. dip, pull, and feather) make it much easier once you’re on the water. Safe canoe boarding/off-boarding deserves alot of repetitive instruction and correction.

As a kid I always looked forward to the Tippy Test. After we passed the counselors would let us play ‘queen of the gunwale’. Bow and stern stand on the gunwales facing each other wrapping the gunwales with the toes and seesaw with a ‘twist’ until one is knocked off. Some how we never managed to get hurt by colliding with the boat. It was fun to get under a capsized aluminum and sing. All part of being comfortable in a boat full of water away from shore and building confidence in knowing what to do before one gets in trouble.

Fun stuff: floating lunches, floating art, (watercolors of the view, or keeping a journal) floating stargazing (cover the flashlights with red paper and everyone has a star chart), paddle parade, get together with art n’crafts and have the kids design some hats, or costumes and maybe deck out their boat. Nylon net fruit bags filled with rocks make good anchors, provides another important instruction on how to raise an anchor.

Set up a course with floating milk jugs which requires them to maneuver as a team using stroke skills. Stress on communication and cooperation. Personally I like to avoid competition amongst varying abilities, many times it only serves to boost the ego the strongest and can make the weak weaker. Great opportunities to teach appreciation and respect of the water environment and surrounding fauna and flora.

Don’t sweat the technique, just the safety and having fun. Make them safe boaters. I’ll never forget the simple phrase an instructor of mine empowered us with, “you try”.

There are also organizations devoted to getting the disabled out on the water, maybe they will share with you. Much luck, Heidi

near and dear to me
I’m so glad to see this thread! The responses have so many good ideas. Thanks for being willing to do this work.

My experience is mostly with therapeutic horsebackriding programs and with my own rehab. I have also taught at camps and at the ‘Y’. I was training to be a P.E.teacher and specializing in injury prevention and rehab. Each situation is unique, but there are some more common characteristics. You are probably up to speed with this stuff, but sometimes basic stuff gets lost when making the transition to physical activities.

Canoeing (like horse activities) is considered a high risk activity. Make sure the camp insurance is satisfied.

Helping everybody feel reasonably safe and minimizing fear of the unknown is important. Besides the things already mentioned in other posts, we found that demonstrating each step helps them know what to expect.

For the more profoundly disabled, just sitting in a canoe and feeling the motion of the canoe on water will stimulate them. Be prepared for sudden reactions to unfamiliar feelings. Also, take advantage of increased feeling/awareness.

Think in terms of gross motor movement and break everything down into basic steps. This applies to emotionally and/or physically challenged people.

Too much, too fast will frustrate or scare many of your campers. Be able to adjust according to the individual. This takes good planning and communication between all involved before you work with the campers.

Sometimes familiar people (parents, sibs, etc.) can complicate things. Their reactions can trigger behaviors in your campers. Sometimes the camper needs their familiar person with them at all times. Making them familiar with your routine can help. I’m assuming you have experience with this since you have worked with this camp.

Short attention spans are usually the norm. Autistic and ADD kids need more structure and regulated input. Some of your campers will tire easily and then have difficulty putting it all together.

You probably are well aware of all the generalities above, so here’s some specific ideas.

Get the campers familiar with the equipment on dry land. This means different things to different ability levels. Get to the ‘hands on’ part as quickly as possible. Practice getting in and out of the canoe on dry land. This will develop confidence and help you spot difficulties before you get near the water. Using the ‘Simon says’ game can keep the more able kids engaged in dry land practice. The less able kids can participate with the assistance of their helpers.

Remember that kids find other ways to use equipment. Paddles become swords. PFDs and painters can be used to tie up other kids. We had a handy storage place for equipment, a lot of helpers, and minimized sitting around time. When you start out,lots of space between campers helps keep them focused on their canoe and equipment. It also helps them feel less threatened by the canoe next to them. You can determine how much interaction is good as you work with the group.

Have something equivalent to “all stop” to safely regain control.

Para and quadrapelegic people may tend to be ‘top heavy’. Seating them lower in the canoe can help. For those with good upper body strength and control, stabalizing their legs and hips can enable them to paddle on their own and have boat control. Folding their legs under in a kneeling position may work well for some, but watch for circulation problems and bruising.

Working in a pool or knee deep water with a helper walking along each side of the canoe can help a disabled person get used to balancing in the canoe. They can practice paddling this way as well. The helpers can help guide the paddle in the water until the camper learns the pattern. Another option is to seat the camper in the center and have experienced bow and stern paddlers. The center person can practice paddling or just enjoy the ride.

Outriggers or stabalizers can work for lake paddling.

Equipment can be adapted to individuals. Funding may be available thru insurance or grants. We know of engineers who have volunteered their design and fabrication skills to a local home for profoundly disabled kids.

Colors and shapes may mean more than words to some kids. This may help you work with vocabulary limitations.

I hope this has been helpful. It may be stuff you already know, so my apologies in advance if that’s the case. Best wishes for a great program!

ACA info

contact Wilderness Inquiry
a non-profit organization whose goal it is to provide opportunities for persons of all abilities to experience nature. Their trips integrate people with and without disabilities. They do a bunch of canoeing (& kayaking) trips, including to the BWCA, Green River, other wilderness areas. They use excellently trained guides and foster cooperation among the members of the group. I suggest you contact them ( )and see if they can provide you with some suggestions about setting up your program.

Best wishes on your wonderful undertaking!


camp canoeing
Some other fun ideas include swamped canoe “races” with or without paddles, or using the canoe to transport ice from one dock to another - I think you get the picture.

Dead fish tag might work depending on exact population.

I also work for a camp as the waterfront director. although we aren’t a disability camp, we often have campers with special needs. to be perfectly honest, I’m usually most concerned with our PFDs. Ours do not turn a person upright and i’ve found even able body/minded adult campers that are nonswimmers may panic and not lift their head up out of the water. If at all possible I make time for the campers to try swimming with the PFDs.

I don’t know if the above mentioned game with flashlights would be allowed in a camp setting. Because lifeguards cannot see if a canoe has capsized etc. boating and swimming is never permitted at night.

Great post - I’ve enjoyed reading all the info.

At the nationals they had excellent classes and teaching. I know a man with one leg who did the90 miler. To find his name try macs canoe livery in tupper lake,ny or adk or or the newmans of grasse river canoes

I hear you! :slight_smile:
All that was meant by that comment was that I will be designing and implementing the canoeing program. The only limitation (other than obvious ones such as safety, time restraints and feasibility) to the lessons is my creativity. I agree completely to the value of listening. In the past, more “able” individuals have been taught stroke technique and have gone of day-trips. Others have worked toward individual goals, from overcoming a fear of being in a boat for the first time to learning some technique.

I appreciated your advice though, and thanks for replying to my post!