People with physical or mental disabilities can paddle with either minor or no adaptations. There's no better proof of this than a recent Tualatin Riverkeepers paddle trip I led for a group of people with disabilities.
A couple of participants were severely disabled, being confined to motorized wheelchairs. One young woman had to rely on a breathing machine. Others had less severe disabilities ranging from weakness in limbs to learning disabilities. Despite some severe disabilities, every trip participant was able to paddle.
During the Tualatin Riverkeepers’ Disabled Paddle trip, volunteers carefully lifted the young woman and man confined to wheelchairs and placed into tandem kayaks. The breathing apparatus the woman relied on was placed in the front of her kayak. Both paddlers required tandem kayaks and paddling companions, but they were able to paddle, and both had a great time, as did the other participants on the trip. So if individuals who face severe physical and mental hardships daily can paddle, then so can you.
Adventures without Limits (AWS) was also on hand to help out by providing specially adapted paddles and boats. Balance can be an issue for some people with disabilities, so AWS had on hand boats that had been adapted to accommodate pontoons that turned the boats into basically outrigger kayaks. AWS also had foam and inflatable bags they could use to prop up individuals’ legs or torsos because some lack skeletal-muscular control. The padding also helps protect against chaffing because many with disabilities also suffer with sensitive skin that is easily chaffed or bruised.
Once on the water, the participants’ disabilities seemed to fade for the duration of the paddle. A specially adapted paddle allowed one woman with diminished arm strength to paddle. The two confined to wheelchairs on land found they could move with grace and ease on the water. In fact, one of participants confined to a wheelchair was quite a speed demon on the water and was always way ahead of everyone else in the group. As the trip leader, I had to remind him to stay with the group; otherwise, a trip that took three hours to complete he would have finished in two. I think you could say he found paddling to be liberating.
This is the beauty of paddling. It is liberating for people with and without disabilities.
Paddlers without disabilities rely on their legs and feet to help transfer momentum to the boat. Their legs and feet also help in balancing the boat and bracing, which is important when executing a turn. Paddlers with little or no use of their legs lack this ability and find the foot pegs in kayaks useless. All momentum from these paddlers comes from their upper body. To experience this limitation, prop your legs up on the thwart of your canoe, or take your feet off the foot pegs in your kayak. You’ll quickly discover how important lower body strength is in paddling, and you’ll gain an appreciation of the accomplishment it is for people with no lower body use to paddle.