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  • Meg McCall

Adaptive Kayaking: A Blind Paddler's Perspective

The Adapted Paddle Program at California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) was founded in 2001 by Dr. Kevin Taylor, Cal Poly’s Director of the School of Education, along with Jeff and Monica Clark. The program pairs students with people from the community who have disabilities two weekends each quarter to work together, along with certified kayaking instructors and occupational therapists, to adapt kayaks and practice skills so that the community members can safely kayak in open waters. It's offered through the Kinesiology and Public Health Department's 307 Class: Adaptive Physical Activity.

blind kayaker paddling in Morro Bay in tandem kayak
Dana (front) is functionally blind, kayaking in Morro Bay.

As of its 20th anniversary in 2020, the program had enough kayaks to permit 12 students and six community members with disabilities to participate in the program each quarter.

I’ve had the privilege of attending several of the adaptive paddling training weekends since 2013, including the most recent session in February of 2020. In fact, the program and its leaders have been instrumental in helping fine-tune the design of our Versa Paddle and Gamut Paddle Holder.

This time around, I took the liberty of interviewing some of the community participants, students and program administrators involved in the program to explore their perspectives and learn more about how it all works. This is the first of three blogs stemming from those interviews.

Learning to Navigate the World Blind

One of the participants I met at the February session was Dana Holland, a 53-year-old man born and raised in nearby Atascadero, California. An outdoorsman by both trade and disposition, Dana began losing his eyesight about 15 years ago and today is functionally blind. He heard about the adaptive paddling program after participating in another Cal Poly adaptive initiative, EyeCycle, which pairs sighted and non-sighted participants on tandem bicycle excursions. “I did that program for three years, but eventually, there were so many participants I stepped down so others could participate,” says Dana.

In the beginning, as Dana was coming to terms with his vision loss, he’d attempt to participate in community activities but felt like he didn’t know how to navigate his surroundings with confidence. “I’d go out and think, ‘well that didn’t go very well’ or ‘how embarrassing was that,’” he says. “We all have that emotion of embarrassment. It’s like ‘oh, don’t worry about it,’ but when people say, ‘don’t worry about it,’ you know that they feel uncomfortable for you.” Now, however, Dana says he can enjoy trying new things without feeling like it’s a waste of time.

One of the things about blindness, he explains, is “other people’s worry for you.” He describes how it can get overwhelming when you go out someplace and it’s crowded. “You constantly hear, ‘Oh, excuse me. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Oh, come here, I’ll help you.’ It’s out of the kindness of people’s hearts but it gets overwhelming,” he relates.

Exposing Students to People with Other Abilities

kayaker with visual impairment paddling in pool in tandem kayak
Day One: Practicing in the Cal Poly Pool

He likes the program because it gives him the opportunity to participate in something on his own, out of the house. “I also like it for the education it provides to these kids, exposing them to people with different abilities. I like to say ‘abilities’ rather than ‘disabilities’ because some of the stuff that we can do with what we have is pretty amazing!”

In addition to classroom learning, the Cal Poly students have two weekend training labs. In the first, they receive training on kayaking safety (e.g., parts of the kayak, paddle strokes, self- and assisted-rescues) and working with people with disabilities from instructors Tom Reilly, ACA Certified Adaptive Kayaking Instructor and owner of Central Coast Kayaks, and John Lee, Assistive Technology Specialist with the Cal Poly Disability Resource Center.

man who is blind holding paddle to find the right grip distance
Finding the Right Paddle Grip Distance

The second weekend entails hands-on fitting and practice at the Cal Poly Recreation Center swimming pool on Saturday and an on-water excursion in the Morro Bay National Estuary on Sunday. During the second weekend, every community participant is paired with two students who work to identify any kayak adaptations the person might benefit from relative to their disability, ranging from a supported seat, to an adaptive paddle like Versa, to foam padding.

For Dana, that simply meant adding a piece of tape to each side of the paddle shaft so that he had a guide for where to place his hands on the paddle and to know that the paddle was in the right-side-up position. He also chose to wear an eye mask during the in-pool session on Saturday, noting “Sometimes I prefer to have no vision at all rather than straining to make things out.”

Kayaking Safety a Priority

Dana says he's very confident in the safety training that he and the students have had. In fact, he said earlier in the day as he was having his morning coffee, he was reminding himself ‘Now, what are the steps to evacuate?’ He also knows that throughout the on-water experience in Morro Bay, there are numerous student rescue paddlers among the group. “It’s an added layer of comfort the program provides us as paddlers.”

While the pool practice gives students and paddling participants a basic feel for kayaking, space is inherently limited. It’s the Morro Bay outing that provides the optimal kayaking experience. The group met at 9:00 a.m., timed to coincide with ideal tide and wind conditions, and were on the bay by 9:30 a.m. With Dana in front and his student instructor in the back of a tandem kayak, the two set out among a group of roughly 16 kayakers. Other than an occasional verbal directive from his student co-paddler (e.g., paddle right to avoid the anchored boat on the left), Dana was left to explore the open waters.

The group stayed in the vicinity of the shoreline throughout the trip and stopped periodically to learn about the local wildlife, including cormorants, blue herons, the Morro Bay Sand Spit, and the former oyster harvesting industry in the area. On the way back, instructor Tom Reilly challenged the kayakers to navigate around the pylons, shown above. (Dana is in the front seat of the middle green kayak, wearing red.)

Like pretty much every one of the paddlers involved in the February outing, Dana says it was a terrific experience and he’s grateful for the opportunity to participate.

This is one of two blogs about the Cal Poly Adapted Paddle program. You can read our interview with one of the student participants here.


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