Making Your Vessel Accessible for the Disabled

Making Your Vessel Accessible for the Disabled
By Urban Miyares, Co-Founder, Challenged America Program

“Urban – My wife now has MS and uses a wheelchair. How can I make our 30 foot sailboat more wheelchair friendly so she can continue to be active as crew and enjoy being on the water? Jim L.”

Over the years we’ve received many such requests, from both sail and power boat owners wanting to make their vessels more accessible and accommodating for themselves and others with disabilities. As a matter of fact, just in the past couple of weeks I’ve had 3 such requests – which prompted me to write this blog.

If you have a physical, mobility or sensory challenge (whether permanent or temporary) or diagnosed with a hidden medical condition, you’ll immediately discover how unfriendly most boats are. Their design is not accommodating to the disabled. However you can make your sail or power boat more welcoming and comfortable to crew members and passengers with impairments.
Following is but a beginning outline to help guide you in making your vessel more accessible to those with physical challenges.

If you really want to find out, first-hand, what a person with a disability encounters when boating, take the time, with someone’s assistance, and put yourself in a wheelchair, tie one arm behind your back, tie both legs together and use crutches, insert plugs in both your ears or blindfold yourself and experience the entire process – from the parking lot to boarding and sitting on/in your vessel. Then, after this experience, do it all over again with another type of impairment.
Although using a wheelchair or blindfolding yourself is not exactly the same as being paralyzed or blind, this first-hand experience – for you and your regular crew – will surely begin to sensitize all, and better help you evaluate your vessel and what may happen, as well as better prepare you to handle a possible accident aboard your vessel in the future.

We see it all the time, boat owners wanting to make their vessel accommodating to the disabled, fail to consider the approach to their boat. From the passenger’s arrival to your facility, onto the pathway to your vessel, making note of any difficulty is best realized by traveling the route yourself, in a mode similar/like that of your guest. – e.g., in a wheelchair, with a cane/crutches, blind-folded, etc.
Do it once (and include this exercise with your regular crew) and you’ll quickly identify the challenges many face, and the effort theyt must exert to reach your vessel

People with disabilities come in all sizes, shapes and ages, both male and female. And although one person may be highly functional with a specific medical condition, another, having the same diagnosis, may be entirely different.
Don’t assume anything! Ask first.
Nothing worse for the skipper of any vessel to be surprised when they suddenly discovered that a new passenger shows up at the dock with a (physical) disability and, even more frightening, when a known crew member has an undisclosed medical condition that suddenly surfaces while sailing (e.g., seizure, low blood sugar, reaction of/to a medication, etc.).
As captain/skipper of the vessel, you’re going to need to be aware of all medical conditions everyone on your vessel have, whether obvious or hidden along with the medications or adaptive aids they may take/have onboard. Don’t be embarrassed or shy in asking.
And don’t forget yourself, if you also have a medical issue. Let another member know of your special circumstances in case you suddenly become unable to carry on your duties as captain/skipper.

First-time passengers with disabilities will surely ask you a number of question. Be firm and confident-sounding in your response. A sampling of the questions you may be asked include, but far from limited to :
• Can I bring my wheelchair aboard ? (It’s a powerchair.)
• Can my Seeing Eye dog guide or service dog come too ?
• Will my personal attendant be able to come sail with us ?
• How will I be able to go to the bathroom ?
• How will I get on and off of your boat ?
• Does your boat have refrigeration for my medications ?
• How long will we be sailing ?
• What type of clothes should I wear/bring ?
• Do I need to wear a life jacket ? Are you sure it will fit ?
• Will There be food and something to drink on board ?
• I use oxygen … Will I be able to sail with you ?
• Does my Mom have to go too ? I’m a kid.
• Will I be able to steer the boat ?
• Will I get sea sick ?
• Can I lay down if I don’t feel well ?
A way to simplify and become comfortable in addressing questions and making your vessel accommodating and accessible is to first determine what type of physical, mobility and/or sensory challenges you want to focus on in your first outing. Knowing this beforehand will make the process so much easier for all.

Much like your passengers, boats are not (necessarily) all alike. From the size and type of vessel you have (sail or power) to its docking (Mediterranean tie-up to side-tie to a dock) or mooring need to be evaluated and considered … along with the type of sailing you intend to do.
Of course, if you have the option to focus on a specific type of disability, the process of making your vessel more accommodating tends to be easier … and once comfortable with a specific type of disability or guest’s personal challenge, you can then expand to passengers with other types of challenges and impairments on future outings.

If, for example, you envision hoisting passengers with disabilities in a hoist-like system, using your main’s halyard, you should try the system first with existing crew members. It should be noted that not all people with physical /mobility challenges want or should be hoisted onto or off-of your vessel. And although your bosun’s chair and harness works great for going up into the rigging, don’t assume it’s workable to also hoist someone with a disability. Again, ask and test first.
Note: Many who regularly hoist guests (unable to walk) use a halyard line, threaded through a block on the boom, with the passenger sitting in a hoyer seat and strapping around their legs and chest.
You will discover that physically handling, lifting and guiding – with more than one crew member or helper – may be best and safer. Make sure you and those helping understand how a person with a disability should be lifted and placed. (Requesting that guest passengers where a wide belt or other harness apparatus will make grabbing and lifting, by others easier.)
Some sailors/boaters with disabilities will be able to lift themselves independently (with a crew member standing by … just in case) from their wheelchair onto your vessel’s deck and slide readily to a crew/passenger position. And others may decide to take their artificial limbs (prosthetics) off for easier and safer movement around your vessel.
Following are a few – of the many – accessible issues you may need to consider.
• Freeboard – mainly at the dock.
• Strength of mast and condition of lines if hoisting.
• Condition and strength of all safety lines.
• Cockpit size and arrangement.
• Seating of passengers – cushions, position, etc.
• Headroom and obstacles – e.g., boom, sheets/lines, deck fittings and hardware, running backstays, shrouds, sails, companionway, stairs, vessel frames and headroom, instruments/electronics, etc. Anything protruding and affecting head clearance is a barrier.
• Access below-deck.
The list goes on and on, as each vessel is different. However, make your vessel more accessible and you’ll have a safer boat for all crew and passengers, disabled or able-bodied.

With the heel, pitch and roll of your vessel, common sense will be your guideline; and, making your new passengers as comfortable as possible will enhance their enjoyment.
It is also important that when making any changes or adding to your vessel, to make accommodations for a passenger with a disability, such changes are not interfering in your (regular) crews performance and safe operation of the vessel.
Tip: In some wide beamed (sailing) vessels, it is not uncommon to have a line permanently tied from beam-to-beam (port-to-starboard) to assist challenged passengers in moving when tacking.
In many circumstances, making reasonable accommodations is simple,inexpensive, and easy to perform.
It is strongly suggested that you encourage first-timers to constantly drink liquids (water), and protect themselves from the elements – i.e., sun, wind, and spray/water.

When the adventure has ended and you’re back at the dock, your guests may experience sea legs, exhaustion and weakness, along with possible changes in their medical condition. This is normal for most people with disabilities, especially if they take medication.
For safety reasons, avoid any rush by passengers to get off your vessel.
Once back on the dock, you or a crew member should escort the boating guest (if they don’t already have a companion) back to the shoreline or their vehicle.

Thank you for considering boaters with disabilities in your boating lifestyle. I do hope that you discover, like many others have, that sailors with disabilities can adapt and adjust readily, and be extremely proficient in many or most crew positions.
If you have any questions on how best to make your vessel – cruiser or racer – more accessible and how to best serve individuals with specific types of disabilities and medical conditions, please email me and provide your vessel type and size, type of boating you do, where your vessel is located, and the type of disability you are needing or would like to accommodate.
Looking forward to your response — Urban Miyares –

6 thoughts on “Making Your Vessel Accessible for the Disabled

  1. Thank you for this very complete & practical information. My best friend is in a wheel chair (he is without the use of his legs from the waist down) He is how ever very active drives, kayaks, etc… my concern is making the cockpit so that he is able to contribute while sailing, at the helm or assisting with lines while tacking etc.. Our boat is an Oceanis 351. My friends desire is to go cruising with his family & mine. Short distance lunch to dinner cruises not more than an overnight to start. Maybe more as we all learn. I am doing a dry run with my family, this weekend to generate a list of suitable destinations near and around Annapolis. If there are any helpful suggestions please send them along.

    • Beneteau Oceanis 351 …..A really nice boat.
      Head…would you lift him of the head?
      Do you have bungee ropes to tied him wheelchair?

      • Hello Glenda – Read your post and not sure if you are making a comment or addressing another (Keith’s?) inquiry.
        Regarding the head on (your) Beneteau, installing handrails some someone who is physically disaled can seat and lift themselves off the bowl is almost an essential. And, if you plan to sail in rough water, having a cross-bar across the person, when seated is a good idea…especially in a sudden tack or jibe.
        If the person is physically unable to lift him/herself , then you may discover having a porta-potty near the companion way stairs, belowdeck, is the most convenient, rather than having to bring the crew member forward to the head.
        Let me know if you have any specific questions, and giving more information on those with disabilities you may have onboard would be most helpful to me.
        Have a great time sailing – Urban, .

    • Hello Keith – thank you for your inquiry,and I know your vessel quite well…a good boat.
      As your friend is probably (I’m guessing) an “L” or a low “T” level paraplegic, he should have quite a bit of upper body strength and possibly some stomach muscle strength too. Given this, he should easily be able to get into and out of the vessel fairly easily (with some assistance as a standby), slide readily around the deck and cockpit seat on his butt, and have had strength — able to steer, tail or grind the winch on his side. Transfering from port to starboard may be an issue when tacking.
      Find out if one side is stronger than the other (which is often the case) and have his stronger side toward the cockpit when steering or grinding. Ask him if he’d like to sit on his wheelchair cushion or on another cushioned mat or life preserver. Hopefully he’s using a bladder bag — ask him. This will eliminate a possible need to go below. And, above all else, make sure he’s wearing a PFD at all times.
      Let me know how it goes. Exciting. — Urban, .

    • Re: Short Legs and Access.
      Thank you for your question on having short legs and getting into and out of your vessel.
      If the freeboard is higher than the dock, a simple solution would be shorter steps on a boarding-platform on the dock.
      However, if you need to step down from the dock into your vessel, then having soft material (such as s piece of carpet) on the dock and then slide onto the deck of yoru boat is workable, in most instances.
      You mentioned “pain” … this is of concern to me as if you are experiencing pain while sailing, probably other modifications or adaptations may be needed, starting with your seat cushion, and also having your legs rest on a firm platform while sailing, rather than dangling — which can increase the pain level.
      Let me know if you have any issues I have not addressed, and also tell me what type of vessel you sail/boat in.

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