• Cathy Webster, Physical Therapist

Physical Therapist Helps Clients Achieve New Gains Through Adaptive Kayaking

As a physical therapist I am always seeking therapies, equipment and opportunities that will improve my clients’ physical and emotional well-being. I also happen to be an avid kayaker, so it was doubly exciting when a few years ago I learned about a new adaptive kayak paddle that would allow individuals with weakness, pain, paralysis or limited function to paddle independently, in an energy-efficient manner.


oar physical therapy

You see, in addition to being a physical therapist, I manage an adaptive kayaking program at the Northeast Disabled Athletic Association. Its goal is to empower participants to move independently under their own power, allowing them the opportunity “to leave chairs and canes on the shore and explore the beautiful Vermont shorelines.”


The Versa Paddle, manufactured by Angle Oar, has been an invaluable addition to the program, changing the lives of dozens of my clients! The paddle is supported by a mount that is attached to the cockpit of the kayak. The paddle rests upon a post that pivots in all directions and can be used straight, however the real benefit comes when both blades of the paddle are angled downward to 30-degree position. This allows the kayaker to keep their arms comfortably at their sides instead of lifting the paddle above shoulder height on one side in order to make the blade come into contact with the water on the other side. High level quadriplegics with minimal shoulder strength and even the slightest amount of tenodesis are able to kayak. Versa can be used by paddlers where one side of the body is impaired, for example, from a Cerebrovascular Accident (CVA), brain injury or cerebral palsy. In these cases, the uninvolved arm can paddle and maneuver the kayak smoothly and with little effort, or both arms can be used, offering range of motion- and strength-building opportunities for the weaker side. Because the wrists and hands are positioned in a neutral position with elbows down (very much like holding a steering wheel at the 10 and 2 o’clock positions), the effort required to paddle is minimal, resulting in less stress and strain to all upper extremity joints. As the kayaker becomes more familiar with the paddle’s functionality, their strength and coordination increase, and Versa can be adjusted into a straight paddle. The paddle is still supported, or it can be totally unsupported, providing flexibility for different paddlers’ needs. It’s important to note that in many cases, the paddler and kayak may need other adaptations besides the paddle itself (e.g., outriggers, trunk support, Hoyer lift) to ensure the paddler’s safety, so working with knowledgeable instructors or physical therapists who have training in adaptive paddling is important.

disability kayaking

In the three years I've used the Versa Paddle, I’ve seen strength, range of motion (ROM), and balance improvements among my clients, as well as reduction in hypertonicity. One woman, a C3-C6 quadriplegic, who has been in the program since the beginning, has seen tremendous gains over the years through this form of kayak therapy.


Examples of diagnoses of kayakers who have used the Versa paddle include:

Adaptive paddling programs like mine are springing up all over the world, and they provide a meaningful way to help clients build strength, endurance and coordination. More importantly, though, the Versa Paddle has provided people who would never have imagined being able to kayak again the opportunity to be out on the water and exploring, improving not only their physical well-being, but their emotional and spiritual well-being, and allowing patients to feel whole in a world where they often feel broken.


*This article was original published in May 2019 but has been updated since that time.

Cathy Webster is a registered physical therapist at The RehabGYM and the Adaptive Kayaking Program Director with the Northeast Disabled Athletic Association, a non-profit whose mission is to encourage and make available recreational and competitive sport to disabled Vermonters. For more information and volunteer opportunities for the upcoming season, contact Cathy at kayak@disabledathletics.org