The road to inclusion: How greater Rochester is moving toward recreation for all
On a sweltering Labor Day weekend in the village of Fairport, Julie Cataldo and six of her friends stood in a circle near a dock as they got ready to go out on the Erie Canal for their annual kayak outing.
It began six years ago in celebration of Julie's 50th birthday, and it's now a tradition.
"I just like to be out on the water," Cataldo said. "I like that I can do it with my friends and have a good time together."
Cataldo wasn't always able to do things like this with friends who don't have disabilities. She has cerebral palsy with spastic quadriplegia, which means all four of her limbs are affected, as well as her speech.
Kim Chase is Julie's oldest friend; they've known each other all of their lives.
"She was offered lots of different activities as we were growing up that had different accommodations and things that were made for her," Chase recalled. "And I had activities that I could do, and we could never do them together."
But this is starting to change. There’s a move toward inclusive recreation around Rochester, the Finger Lakes region, and beyond.
It's especially evident along the Erie Canal, with recreational opportunities now available for people of all abilities in various locations across the state.
Two days before Julie and her friends got together in Fairport, Anita O'Brien, executive director of Rochester Accessible Adventures, greeted government and business leaders on the canal in the village of Brockport alongside an adaptive kayak launch.
It's one of eight spots along the Erie Canal between Buffalo and the Albany area that are equipped with boating accommodations for people with disabilities.
"There's so many stories around this piece of metal, but they all lead back to people," O'Brien said, gesturing to a metal transfer bench used to ease boaters into their kayaks. "Fathers, grandmothers, parents, siblings, friends now have a way to say, 'Hey, do you want to go kayaking today?'"
RAA is a nonprofit that works with municipalities, businesses, and others to create healthy lifestyle options for people with disabilities to pursue together with their families and friends.
O'Brien has noticed in the last several years that more cities, towns, and villages are open to this way of thinking.
"You get these entities that have funding, that have marketing capacity, to put front and center images of people with disabilities navigating the canalway space. That's an amazing shift for our area," she said.
It's also a largely untapped economic opportunity.
According to a 2018 report from the nonprofit American Institutes for Research, working-age people with disabilities had about $21 billion in discretionary income. O'Brien pointed out that the potential financial impact is compounded when you consider the ripple effect when these individuals travel with friends and family members.
"(They) will now come to your town because you put in an adaptive kayak launch, or because you've changed access points to restaurants in your community, and made sure you have an accessible bathroom," she said.
When O'Brien uses the term "accessible bathroom," she's not simply referring to entrances and stalls wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair. She's also talking about facilities with changing stations for adults with disabilities.
The term "universal design" is often used to describe the model used by planners and architects to consider the experience of all the people who will use a space — including but not limited to people with disabilities. Are there parking spaces close to entrances? Do curb cuts land in the right place for wheelchairs, walkers, and strollers to get where they're going?
The Americans with Disabilities Act only mandates the bare minimum in terms of access. When ADA laws went into effect over 30 years ago, this may have satisfied government and private-sector decision-makers.
But times are changing.
"We've come so far since then," O'Brien said. "But the average person may not realize that."
And when it comes to inclusive or universal recreation, there are benefits for local residents as well as out-of-town visitors in search of adaptive adventures.
New York State Canal Corp. director Brian Stratton said his organization has been working with advocacy groups like RAA for the past decade to increase accessibility along the Erie Canal corridor.
He said the Rochester area has a kind of built-in advantage for kayakers.
"The geometry and the geography of the canal here really supports that," Stratton explained. "From Utica east, the canal is really the Mohawk River, so you don't have a placid, controlled, constant level waterway as you have here."
Despite that natural edge for the Finger Lakes region, O'Brien said realizing the full potential of inclusive recreation requires strategic, intentional planning. And buy-in from business owners like Peter Abele, the owner of Erie Canal Boat Co., which offers adaptive and non-adaptive bike and kayak rentals along the canal in Fairport and Lockport.
He started offering adaptive equipment about 10 years ago. Now it represents about 15% of his business. Abele said he has had customers from New York City to as far away as Australia and New Zealand.
Riders can choose among various bicycles, from a recumbent model to a hand-cycle trike and upright models using straps to keep the feet in place while pedaling.
Adaptive kayaks come with seat backs for extra support as well as adjustable paddle posts to help kayakers who have one limb or weakness on one side of their body. A standard kayak can also be modified with an outrigger for more stability for those who need it.
During her Fairport kayak party, Julie Cataldo used a tandem kayak. She took the front seat while her friend, Adrienne Allen, got in back.
Cataldo prefers a Hoyer lift to get into a boat, but the village of Fairport removed its lift during the most recent waterfront renovations. The lift is a mobility device that works kind of like a crane to transfer a seated person into the vessel.
Abele said there are plans to reinstall a Hoyer lift alongside the metal transfer bench that Cataldo used on Labor Day weekend.
Cataldo sat on the top step of the graduated bench and worked her way down, one step at a time, until she was level with her kayak. She held onto straps tied to an overhead bar, as Abele helped her slide into a seat to which he attached a back support panel.
He said he sees dozens of people use this bench to get into their kayaks each day, not just people with disabilities.
"It's maybe somebody that's a little bit older that's just a little bit nervous about getting in and out of their dock," Abele said. "When they realize all they have to do is step into the kayak and sit down, it changes their whole attitude."
Once Cataldo and her crew of friends were all nestled in their kayaks, they paddled away from the dock, traveling a few yards to the west before circling back to the east, the late summer sun at their backs. They planned to spend about 90 minutes on the canal before coming back for a waterside picnic.
"It's an equalizer," she said. "Once we're in the water, we're just having a good time."
This story is reported from WXXI’s Inclusion Desk.