The American Disabilities Act is slowly but surely removing impediments and improving access for people with disabilities to buildings, parks, trails and fishing docks throughout the Chesapeake Bay region.

But the ADA and related regulations offer no standards or guidelines for how to improve accessibility for disabled paddlers while they transition in and out of their boats at the shore, arguably one of the most critical maneuvers in paddle sports.

To learn how to make paddle sports more accessible to people with disabilities, more than 60 planners, paddlers and recreation specialists from federal, state and local programs and groups gathered in September in Smithfield, VA, for a workshop coordinated by the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation.

Keynote speaker Janet Zeller had been paddling for more than 30 years until an automobile accident limited the use of her arms and legs.

Zeller defied the discouraging prognosis of her doctors, and got back to sea kayaking using a boat and paddle especially adapted to her new needs. With passion and persistence, she worked with the American Canoe Association to create the ACA’s Adaptive Paddling Program. Now the national accessibility manager with the U.S. Forest Service, she continues to champion ways to make wilderness experiences available to people of all abilities.

Few paddlers will deny the magic and healing power of being able to move on the water. Water — running in rivers, rising and falling with the tides, lying still in back bays of reservoirs — is an invitation to recreation.

For disabled people, kayaking and canoeing offer opportunities to be outdoors with family and friends. Zeller noted, “Once you get the adaptations in place for paddling your boat, you are equal with everyone else.”

According to Zeller, the 2010 census counted 57 million people with some kind of disability — the largest minority in the United States. Of these, 85 percent do not use a wheelchair but may have other mobility limitations.

Language is important. Disability refers to a medically defined limitation. “Handicapped” — or what Zeller and other disabled people call the “H” word — refers to the existence of a barrier to access. The ADA works to remove these barriers — at parking lots, buildings, trails and fishing piers, as well as programs, all of which are essential to experiencing the Chesapeake Bay.

Bill Botten is an accessibility specialist with the U.S. Access Board, an independent federal agency that writes the guidelines for the construction and alteration of facilities under several different laws, including the ADA. Botten can cite chapter and verse of ADA and its companion legislation.

Also a paddler, he concedes that the laws — even the new recreation facility guidelines published in 2012 — stop at the water’s edge. But this isn’t necessarily bad. While it can be relatively easy to design or rebuild restrooms, parking facilities and trails to meet the requirements, launch access for paddle sports is so site specific that the design ingredients must include safety, common sense and creativity.

Sally Wetzler, a Richmond-based whitewater kayaker, knows this first-hand. She was already disabled when she learned to kayak in the early ’90s from newly certified instructors who had just completed the ACA adaptive paddling course. A self-described intermediate paddler, Wetzler said, “My disability doesn’t limit the paddling I do. My biggest challenge is always getting into the river.”

Wetzler is a member of the James River Outdoor Coalition, a “friends” group that works with the James River Park System, the urban greenway that flanks the James as it falls through Richmond and provides some of the best urban whitewater on the East Coast.

“When I started paddling, there was no accessible put-in to the James in the park,” Wetzler said. So she helped redesign the Reedy Creek launch with a ramp and wider steps that were completed in 2012.

“I learned a lot,” she admitted, but it’s just a start. “My goal is to have an accessible launch at every one of the put-ins in the park.”

The Virginia DCR and Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, as well as the national programs that fund public access, are up against the same challenges posed by requirements. Often, it’s a case of retrofitting what’s already there and, these days, finding the resources to upgrade existing facilities.

Powhatan State Park on the tidal James, Virginia’s newest park, came with canoe and kayak access, but park ranger Caroline Garmon admitted, “It may be some time before we have the funding to do it right,” in other words, “to the maximum extent practicable.”

Zeller admits that the term “universal design” is often more goal than reality. Ideally, launch sites have a firm and stable surface. There is a gentle grade to the water. Parking is close enough for the paddler and others to hand-carry the canoe or kayak. And there is adequate open space around the launch for helpers to assist.

But often, Zeller said, there are wetlands or marshes to traverse according to permit requirements, or the grade of the ramp through the tidal range is greater than can be safely navigated by those in wheelchairs or using other mobility devices. Ironically, some of the best launch sites for disabled paddlers are those designed for trailered boats.

Wetzler was glad that workshop attendees had a chance to watch and help her and Zeller onto the water using the popular EZ Dock™ launch system, designed to assist the paddler from a wheelchair into a kayak and to facilitate the launch and retrieval of the watercraft.

But Wetzler cautioned that while off-the-shelf solutions are good in some ways, they shouldn’t be seen by those rushing to upgrade facilities as a ready-made solution to all sites. The best thing, Wetzler said, is to invite paddlers who are disabled to help design and implement the solutions.

Zeller recalled when she returned to her kayak for the first time after her accident; how her fear vanished as she floated onto the water in her sea kayak. “I was stable. I was one with my kayak again. And I was free!”

Zeller, Botten, and Wetzler affirmed the exhilaration they experience while paddling. To be self-propelled on the water, exploring the Chesapeake and distant waters, is an essential component of their lives. And freedom, for a time, from the wheelchair.

For information, check out “Canoeing and Kayaking for People With Disabilities,” by Janet A. Zeller, American Canoe Association, 2009; or look into the American Canoe Association’s Adaptive Paddling Courses: