Dignity in Risk


Scroll through dozens of outdoor outfitter websites and you’ll read the same statements: “Everybody belongs in nature.” “The river doesn’t discriminate.” “All are welcome here.”

Inviting people of all backgrounds and abilities to the river is one thing. Actually serving them—making them comfortable, inspired, and a lifelong steward of the river—is where many companies get stuck.

After all, for most of modern history, society equated taking care of somebody with a disability with sheltering them from the world. The culture was—and often still is—to avoid risk altogether. As a result, adventure becomes inaccessible for many people of varied abilities, whether outfitters blame that on gear, fear or lack of guide training.

At 21 years old, in the canyons of Moab, Utah, I learned how to guide nervous paddlers through rapids, fix broken oar towers, and order just the right number of Pringles cans to last a week in the wild. However, the actual work started far beyond the job description.

I guided for the nonprofit Splore (now managed by the National Ability Center), an adaptive rafting company that would take anybody on a river trip as long as they could keep their head above water while wearing a PFD.

Before then, I’d never worked with (or even hung out with) people with disabilities. Admittedly, I avoided eye contact with people in wheelchairs and desperately hoped I’d never be in one myself. Who was I to row these folks to places society had always told them were unsafe?

Day one of training introduced me to the concept of “dignity in risk,” the idea that self-determination and risk-taking are essential to self-esteem and that taking away those freedoms is dehumanizing. Splore believed that every person, regardless of ability or background, deserved to live a full and robust life, including river trips.

I spent three summers at Splore, facilitating rafting trips for anyone who found dignity in risk-taking. People with multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, and previous strokes all found joy and connection in an environment where other companies had turned them away (or not even bothered to market to them).

A surprising side effect of sharing river experiences with these communities was a sense of liberation. My initial insecurities of, “I don’t have anything in common with these people,” evaporated as I noticed our shared human emotions.

I’d been “othering” people for years. It took the river to make me see that in reality, we had plenty in common, from the nerves of approaching a Class IV rapid to the pride of moving beyond our comfort zones. We shared the same joy of getting splashed in the face by huge waves and the same wonder of watching a great blue heron emerge from a red rock canyon.

While rowing against relentless wind and getting grabbed by pushy eddies, I remembered that many of our participants had been “T-ing up” to challenges all their lives, navigating currents they’d been thrown into without a choice. What a privilege I had to choose risk on my own terms. What a joy it can be to share it with others.

Every river outfitter can adapt their messaging, gear and guide training to be inclusive of all participant abilities and embrace the dignity in risk. Here’s how to start.

Lean into the awkward.
On a Cataract Canyon trip, I was in a raft with a married couple who both had cerebral palsy. Kenny and Carol were return participants; their annual Splore trip was a highlight of their year (and ours, too). But as a first-year guide, I felt incredibly awkward trying to hold a conversation and struggled to understand their speech. I dreaded having to say, “What?” a million times while chatting.

The morning of the Big Drop rapids, I was fitting Carol’s helmet, since the muscles in her hands couldn’t fully clip it on. As I was adjusting the helmet to fit her head, Carol kept trying to tell me something. But I couldn’t understand her, so I kept working, laughing awkwardly in an attempt to protect my ego. I gave the helmet a final tap on top to make sure it was tight. And Carol started yelling. Loudly.

A volunteer rushed over to help while I stood back at my raft, heart thumping, wondering where I went wrong. Turns out, every time I tapped on Carol’s helmet, the noise and impact were painful to her. In Carol’s experience, I was ignoring her, not taking the time to listen, and avoiding feeling awkward at the expense of her comfort. That final tap on the head had been the last straw.

Thankfully, the volunteer, Carol, and I took the time to debrief this, and I was able to apologize. From that rapid forward, I vowed never to let awkward come at the expense of someone I was serving.

Especially in a river environment, people (of any ability) experience new, unexpected, and sometimes scary situations. If guides ignore the obvious but uncomfortable conversations, those growth zone opportunities can turn into danger zone conflicts.

Lean into the awkward. Name the elephants in the room. Nobody’s forgetting that they’re in a wheelchair, or that they speak slowly, or that they have low motor control. Talk about the situation openly since it’s the reality you’re both working with.

Start here:
Don’t be afraid to say “What?” as many times as you need to understand your participant. “I’m hearing… Is that right?” helps, too. Beating around the bush makes it more awkward for you and them.

Ask for consent for even the small things. I could’ve asked Carol if it was okay to tap her helmet and found a better method when she said, “no.”

Remember that the effects of past experiences or disabilities aren’t always visible. On a veteran’s trip, I watched a woman start to panic when a guide slapped a Paco Pad on the water, creating a sharp, loud noise that triggered her PTSD. The more you communicate with participants in advance, the better you can anticipate their needs and get all guides on the same page.

Get creative with gear.
Toby was like me in many ways: he was an extrovert who lived for outdoor sports and sought out physical challenges. The big difference was that at 20 years old, Toby had experienced a stroke, and he’d never use his legs in the same way again.

As we eddied out to wait for our group’s other rafts, a commercial company floated by us. “Is that a wheelchair rigged on your stern?!” the guide asked. Toby and I both chuckled—it wasn’t the first time we’d heard that question that day.

Many people assume that if you’re in a wheelchair, you can’t go rafting. Toby was one of hundreds of wheelchair users who I floated with. Since you can’t strap people into a wheelchair on a boat (what if you flip?), we had to get creative to add stable seating for these participants.

Our solution? Plastic lawn chairs. Sawzall off the legs, and cam strap the arms of the chair to the frame of the boat. Boom: a comfortable, sturdy seat in which someone could hold onto the arms for extra support or have caregivers/friends offer their arms for the spicier rapids. You could even add a simple leg sling if someone needed more lower-body support. Wheelchairs could be rigged on top of any other gear in the boats. It’s as simple as that.

Start here:
Consider what small gear additions you can pack to make all guests feel included. On a trip with participants who had traumatic brain injuries, one of our participants couldn’t chew food and could only consume liquids. But he wanted to eat whatever the group was eating. So, into the dry box went a hand-crank blender. He could eat whatever we were eating, just in a slightly different way.

Think about accessibility while rigging. Wheelchairs should be one of the last items rigged so they can be one of the first items off the boat at shore to keep the user comfortable on land.

Outfitters can add FAQ’s to their website to explain adaptive gear before a customer even books a trip. Explaining gear modifications publicly not only welcomes participants to join a trip but shows the public that it’s normal.

Consider the Curb-Cut Effect.
In 1970s Berkeley, California, a group of wheelchair-using students wheeled to a curb at night, poured cement into the shape of a ramp, and let it dry as they avoided arrest by police.

As more crude ramps popped up in curbs around the country, city leaders were surprised to find that these ramps didn’t just benefit wheelchair users. They aided parents with strollers, joggers, travelers with luggage, cyclists and beyond. Now, cuts in curbs are included in sidewalks everywhere, since they help everyone and hurt no one.

The “Curb-Cut Effect” describes when adaptations made for underserved communities end up benefiting all of society. River trips offer plenty of these opportunities.

When I rowed with participants who had multiple sclerosis, we had to be mindful of heat sensitivity that exacerbated MS symptoms, especially since most days were triple-digit temperatures. Squirt guns were the perfect solution; they could be aimed gently and precisely where the participant needed to cool off. They were lightweight and buoyant, and everybody loved getting into a squirt gun battle on a hot day.

Once everybody in wheelchairs arrived at our incredibly sandy camps, roll-out mesh walkways made wheeling to the groover or kitchen far easier in soft sand. Turns out, everybody liked being able to follow a path with clean feet and without stepping directly on sand or rock.

At busy or exposed camps, when participants needed a caregiver for assistance using the groover, a groover tent provided privacy so participants could maintain dignity while taking care of personal needs. Everybody liked the shade, shelter, and space of that tent.

(C) Tom O’Keefe, American Whitewater

Start here:
Ask your staff what would help them with comfort or personal needs, since they’re already familiar with common challenges. For example, female guides need to consider menstrual supplies on long trips. Why not designate an ammo can for period products that goes along on every trip to every groover spot?

Make it universally helpful by including baggies (covered in duct tape for privacy) labeled individually for every person (not just menstruators) to have personal supplies at the groover from the get-go. Period supplies, wet wipes, or medicated cream—whatever people don’t want to shuffle back to the tent for.

Make trip orientation materials accessible, too. If an outfitter has participants watch pre-trip videos, can they add closed captioning for anyone who prefers to read? Can they create audio downloads for busy people in addition to blind people?

Universal design can include base camp. Are folks able to open doors without a free hand, whether they’re unable to use a hand or they’re carrying 20 cans of Pringles? Is your signage in an easy-to-read font and buzzword and jargon-free? If you can walk to the put-in from the office, are there hiking poles available for those who’d appreciate extra support?

For many trip participants, the crux isn’t floating on the river. It’s getting to and from the river, and on and off the boat. Consider your put-ins and take-outs. How accessible are they for those who need extra, time, space or assistance getting to the river. Is there an alternate one you can use?

From an outside perspective, river rafting looks like it’s about the thrill, epic views, and individual physical feats. That’s originally what convinced me and many others to move to Utah and start boating. But shared experiences on the river are what keep us coming back. After all, what’s better than watching a friend catch the whitewater bug?

Splore’s participants showed us guides that more than anything, river trips are about a community coming together to face some level of risk, and emerging from that risk feeling strong, capable, and connected to the environment. Even if the rest of society is saying “you can’t” or “you shouldn’t.”

Kenny, Carol’s husband who also has cerebral palsy, shared, “I’m scared of the water, and Carol is too. We cannot swim a lap. Her mother kept saying no, [Carol shouldn’t go rafting]. After her first trip, she told everyone she would come back and leave me at home if I didn’t… People that don’t break out have a bigger handicap than I do. I heard a saying that if your dreams don’t scare you to death, they’re not big enough, so I love to walk all over my fears. They’re not going to rule my life or Carol’s life.”