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Wheelchairs on water

Ruth Holdway discovers that fear is the only barrier for disabled children who want to have a go at canoeing

If you thought canoeing for disabled people needed expensive and complicated equipment, think again. With a few simple adaptations, disabled canoeists can have as much fun on the water as able-bodied paddlers - with no compromise to safety.

As a coach or teacher, the rewards of enabling someone normally stuck on the bank to enjoy the freedom of canoeing are immensely satisfying. Viv Kendrick, voluntary disability officer for the British Canoe Union (BCU), says the fear factor puts coaches and teachers off taking disabled people canoeing because they think safety issues will increase.

"Wearing a buoyancy-aid, disabled canoeists are no more likely to drown than non-disabled canoeists," she says.

Like many governing bodies' disability initiatives, Paddle-Ability focuses on ability.

Geoff Smedley, author of Canoeing for Disabled People, says the focus should be on what the individual can do rather than make an assumption based on a label or a category. "Each person with special needs is an individual with individual needs," he says.

Paddle-Ability is a low-profile scheme run entirely by volunteers. Viv Kendrick's main objective is to persuade coaches and teachers to take the BCU disability awareness course that gives an insight into the needs of such people and demonstrates the possibilities in canoeing.

West Midland's BCU disability co-ordinator, Brian Bennett, who is disabled himself, gained a lot from the course. "It gives a good all-round awareness and enables clubs and centres to integrate disabled paddlers into their normal sessions," he says.

Although a few centres, such as the Calvert Trust in Keswick,provide specialist disabled canoeing courses, Ms Kendrick feels more is gained by integration.

A paddling session with students from Elleray Park school in Wallasey, Liverpool, shows what can be achieved in a short time. The children arrive at Bassenthwaite Lake, the most northerly in Cumbria, and can't wait to get off the mini bus and on to the water. Their eyes light up with nervous excitement.

The 10 pupils from the special school all have a varying degree of disability, but this does not stop them from doing any of the outdoor activities at Calvert Trust. Buoyancy aids, and self-inflating life jackets for the wheelchair users, are issued and it's time to get into the open canoes that are at the edge of the lapping lake. Our craft seem unsinkable, yet it is just two open canoes lashed together to make a raft.

Christine, 10, who is usually wheelchair-bound, goes first. She has no use of her lower body but decides to leave her wheelchair behind and is lifted into a chair in the centre of the boat (nothing special or technical) which is then padded out with beanbags. She is delighted with her short wooden paddle, but at the moment all she wants to do is trail her hands in the water and splash. Simple things, like being so close to the water are new, thrilling and exciting.

Next come the heavy wheelchairs. Seeing a raft in the middle of the lake with two wheelchairs strapped in is a wondrous sight. Once strapped down and a self-releasing harness attached (simply a belt with a float) the children are given a paddle which is held in place by a mitt if they do not have much grip. Add the carers for a bit more manpower and we're off to find Bassie, the Loch Ness monster's sister.

The bus back from the lake is full of laughter. The children's initial fears - never mind their carers' - seem to have evaporated. Unfortunately, we didn't find the monster but all the children had a great session on the water. The best bit of the day? "Being thrown in the lake!"

As a kayak coach, I was amazed at how simple the adaptations need to be.

I'd never paddled with anyone who had a disability before. Like many others I'd always thought teaching disabled canoeists was a separate discipline, something done by dedicated people.

BCU Paddle-Ability Tel: 01484 226 235;; Contact for details of the nearest courses and centres.'Canoeing for Disabled People' by Geoff Smedley, price pound;10, and the BCU Canoe and Kayak Handbook, price pound;15.95, are available from the BCU.Calvert Trust Keswick Tel: 017687 72254; Organises outdoor activities for disabled people as well as disability awareness courses.

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