People with Disabilities Discover Paddling through Adaptive Adventures

6-minute read

Adaptive Adventures gets people with physical disabilities active outdoors, including on the water, through their adaptive kayak, paddleboard and dragon boat programs.

 two staff members help a participant enter a kayak on the beach

Adaptive Adventures’ staff help a participant enter a kayak

“Adaptive Adventures is a champion for providing Freedom through Mobility to all of our participants. We believe everyone should have the opportunity to get active and be included in a larger community. We strive to provide our participants the skills to become independent in the sports of their choice.” (AA website)

Adaptive Adventures began in 1999. Their headquarters are in Colorado, but they operate all over the US, in Canada and in Puerto Rico. A large focus of their program is to bring their gear and staff to places where there isn’t already an adaptive program available.

Their foundational belief is that outdoor sports are empowering and should be accessible to everyone, including individuals with disabilities, no matter their age.

Adaptive Adventures calls itself a “mobile outdoor adaptive sports provider.” They partner with over a hundred organizations and have helped over 100,000 participants “find independence, overcome trauma and establish purpose.” (Read more on their About page)

They specialize in going to unserved and underserved communities, as well as training those communities for sustainable programs. They have 18 locations in the US staffed by volunteers that do the on-the-ground work, while the parent organization provides the equipment, training and admin.

Adaptive Adventures is largely staffed by former Paralympians and other athletes who have a physical disability themselves. So they’re able to fully understand the needs of their participants. They still remember the pain and trauma of injury, the self-doubt and other mental barriers their participants go through.

The Personal Story of Adaptive Adventures’ Executive Director

Chelsea Elder has been Adaptive Adventures’ Executive Director since 2017, but her history with the organization goes back further. She started as a volunteer in 2010 and joined the staff in 2014.

“My dad’s a disabled Viet Nam veteran and my brother has a disability as well. So it was really important to me when I left my previous career field to do something that works with veterans,” said Chelsea.

“Our programs at Adaptive Adventures had a significant personal impact on my father. He had his first experience interacting with other Viet Nam veterans in our programs. It was very therapeutic and he started to become proud that he was a Viet Nam veteran for the first time in my life. He ended up being on our National Dragon Boat team and going to Nationals to compete in Chicago. He would go with me to camps we provide to veterans and have a ball with his independence, freedom and that comradery he missed from the military.”

As you can imagine, these experiences have been very meaningful for Chelsea and are the primary reason why she’s involved with Adaptive Adventures.

Adaptive Adventures’ Kayak, Dragon Boat and Paddleboard Programs

Chelsea stressed, “Just as it’s important for anyone to recreate, it’s even more important for somebody with a physical disability to recreate. Being active is healing to the body and the mind. So it’s really important for individuals isolated or with physical limitations to get out.

“Paddle sports is one of those opportunities that’s really freeing. It gives them an opportunity to get out of their wheelchair, to be free on the water, to have a fascination with the water and to enjoy their natural surroundings.”

staff member gives a paddle demo to participants on-shore

A pre-trip kayak lesson to participants

The Adaptive Adventures’ team has found that their river trips seem to provide the most significant healing and opportunity for their participants to be themselves. Participants often tell their stories around the evening campfire after a long paddling day, as they’re away from the distractions of everyday life.

They’re offered a progressive series of paddling trips:

  • Intro to Paddling
  • Intro to Moving Water
  • 3-day River Trip with self-support (all their gear is on their paddleboard or kayak) and camping

For many participants it’s the first time they’ve ever camped in their lives. They learn how to set up their tent, cook their meals at the river and other trip experiences.

On a trip like this a couple staff members, several volunteers and maybe a recreational therapist or other medical staff will go along. Chelsea added, “We also bring back folks who’ve been on trips in the past as mentors to help new folks along.”

Besides these paddling trips, Adaptive Adventures offers single-day and multi-day camps in urban areas like Chicago. They work with area rehab hospitals so people who’ve experienced spinal cord injuries can get out with their families for outdoor activities like cycling, climbing and paddling.

“For most people it’s the first time they’re doing something post-injury. The first time they’re getting out and being active again, with their family and therapist right there supporting them,” Chelsea explained.

A Common Misperception

It’s often believed that people with physical disabilities can’t be as active, or as active at the same level as other people.

little boy laying on a paddleboard in the water

The smile says it all!

“That’s simply not true,” said Chelsea. “There are adaptations that exist, there are methods and techniques that exist to make all sports accessible to all people. Our organization really focuses on those different types of adaptations that exist.”

Many of their first-time participants have never before identified themselves as an athlete, but their experience has helped them look at themselves differently.

Adaptive Adventures works with equipment manufacturers of adaptive gear, and they also innovate themselves for new adaptations and methods to get people active.

“We do a lot of ‘garage innovation.’ If somebody shows up and has a unique situation, we’ll use duct tape, PVC pipe and whatever else we need to make it happen for that day.” Then they take those projects, find an engineering and design program to work with to 3D print it, and find a way to make it sustainable on a larger scale.

“We’ve started working with companies like REI and BAE Systems to push forward new and innovative equipment that will hopefully become mainstream in the near future.”

staff member helps a man in a wheelchair adjust the one-arm canoe paddle

A staff member helps a participant adjust the One-Arm Freedom canoe paddle

If you’d like to learn more about Adaptive Adventures or even become a volunteer yourself, visit their website: You’ll also find them on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and more.

(All photos courtesy of Adaptive Adventures)

What paddle questions can we help you with today? Get in touch with our Wisconsin-based Customer Service Team: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]

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