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  • Meg McCall

Opening Minds at Cal Poly: Adaptive Kayaking

A group of 20 adults explored the waters and wildlife of the Morro Bay National Estuary earlier this Spring. Some were blind, some were college students, some were long-time paddlers, and still others had cognitive or physical disabilities. The one thing that they all had in common – besides kayaking -- was participating in Cal Poly’s Adapted Paddle Program.

The program brings together college students from the Kinesiology and Public Health Department's 307 class, adaptive paddling instructors, and people from the community with disabilities. In the class, called Adaptive Physical Activity, students study various disabling conditions and the theory and principals of adaptation on physical activities. They then choose from one of three weekend “labs” to apply this knowledge. These particular students chose the adapted paddle program as their hands-on lab.

kayak safety with adaptive paddling

I talked with one of the students, 22-year old Lance Vecchio, about the experience. He explained that the lab entailed two weekend clinics. On the first weekend, students received training from an ACA-certified adaptive kayaking Instructor on kayaking safety (e.g., parts of the kayak, paddling techniques, rescues).

“We came out here, and it was just us -- no participants. We learned how to properly get someone in into and out of a kayak and how to them get back in if they fall out,” says Lance. “Belly, butt, feet – that’s the order.”

The students also learned how to work with people with disabilities from the assistive technology specialist with Cal Poly’s Disability Resource Center. Much of what they discovered was “the respectful way of asking participants what their needs are” and types of adaptations that can be done for various functional limitations. They also learned what to do if someone simply stops paddling or experiences an episode on the water, such as low blood sugar, a seizure, or a loss of sensation.

disabled kayaking student volunteer

During the second weekend, teams of two students each are paired with a community participant. They meet on Saturday at the Cal Poly Recreation Center swimming pool to identify any kayak adaptations the person might benefit from relative to their disability. Do they need additional trunk support? Do they have weakness on one side or joint stiffness? Do they have the strength and coordination to hold a paddle? Depending on the needs of the individual, the answer will range from adaptations such as the mount-supported Versa Paddle, hand grips, Gamut Paddle Holder, or foam padding.

Over the years, the students have worked with people with spina bifida, quadriplegia, cerebral palsy, paralysis due to spinal cord injuries, and blindness. Lance’s partner, who has a cognitive disability and some coordination issues, required just a little additional padding on his seat and paddle grips to keep his hands in proper alignment. “My partner was easy to work with. He was nice, and I very much enjoyed it,” he reports.

On Sunday of the second weekend, the entire group travels about 20 miles to Morro Bay for an on-water excursion. “It was interesting to work with everybody and to see people who were blind be a part of it,” he says.

Lance doesn’t know what his post-graduation plans are yet but reports the adapted paddle program “has opened up my mind a little bit. I came into open-minded, but I enjoyed it more than I thought I would.”

This is one of two blogs about the Cal Poly Adapted Paddle program. The second features an interview with Dana Holland, a paddler who is functionally blind, and his experience with the program. You can read it here.

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