In June (2021), I received an email (I was on the short list thanks to a connection from my instructor certification course) from the program coordinator for Outdoors for All Foundation in Seattle. The email offered a spot in a new ACA Advanced Communications Workshop.

Outdoors for All Foundation, whose mission is “to enrich the quality of life for children and adults with disabilities through outdoor recreation,” had received a grant to run an ACA Advanced Communications Workshop (ACW). And thanks to the grant, the course was being offered free of charge. 

It took less than ten minutes from receiving and reading the email to replying with my interest in taking the workshop.

In August, I spent three days split between the classroom and on-water exercises earning my ACW endorsement:

Each three-day ACW will include eight to ten hours of session-time, split equally each day between classroom based interactive and hands-on skill development followed by on-water implementation and instructor assessment. (Excerpt from the Adaptive Expeditions grant.)

Of all of the classes I have taken as a paddler and instructor to date, this one may be the most invaluable. Scratch that – it IS the most invaluable.

Some background

“The new ACA Advanced Communications Instructor Endorsement (AC-Endorsement) was designed in 2018* to convey effective strategies for teaching and learning, risk assessment and management, and effective facilitation of on-water group dynamics for paddlesports programs to seamlessly include individuals who have vision impairment or blindness, hearing impairment or deafness, as well as speech, language, and/or perceptual impacts from any type of disability.” (Excerpt from the Adaptive Expeditions grant.)

*Adaptive Expeditions hosted what they called a Curriculum Development Summit in Charleston back in early 2018. The event was funded by a 2017 Adaptive Expeditions grant from Disabled Sports USA. The basic concept for the new course was developed at that summit.   

Later in 2018, at the Adaptive Paddling Summit, which was created by Adaptive Expeditions with funding from Craig H. Neilsen Foundation, instructors practiced delivering the Advanced Communications Workshop Endorsement content that had been developed in Charleston.

The grant set aside funds to run the 3-day workshop for four applicant organizations. Outdoors for All Foundation was one of the selected applicants.

Why I took the ACW

When I sent my reply expressing interest in the workshop, I wasn’t thinking about wanting to work with those having some level of communications impairment. My immediate thought was that this was an opportunity to improve as an instructor. Any content that provided me a better understanding of how to communicate and tailor lessons and/or to provide teaching tools was worth taking. That the course was free was a bonus. 

Over the next few weeks, I started seeing more value in the course. Communication on the water isn’t always easy, even when paddlers have no impairments.

Paddling in large swells, at night, or in fog limits visibility and the ability to communicate through sight. Surfing, rock-gardening, being out in Force 4+ conditions can – does – make it difficult, if not impossible, to communicate audibly.

We have our standard paddle and hand signals to communicate visually and we have whistles and radios for audio communication. But what if I had more tools at my disposal? As an instructor and trip leader, it would be invaluable. 

Less than halfway through the classroom portion on day 1, my perspective had shifted. While my reason for taking the ACW was still valid, what I wanted to gain from it was very different.

Shifting perspective

Conversations on day one brought up the realization that some students and trip participants I have had on the water with me might have had an impairment that affected their ability to communicate or understand what I was trying to communicate. 

As an instructor or trip lead, we don’t always get the ‘full’ story about our participants. For a variety of reasons, while we ask (or should be asking) about medical and other conditions that could affect the trip or event, not everyone wants to disclose every detail.

Information might be withheld for fear of being excluded or on the basis that the participant doesn’t think their impairment is an issue. Someone may choose not to disclose something for privacy reasons. 

If you have a mild hearing impairment or are color-blind, you may not want to reveal it or even see it as a concern. 

I was likely already working with individuals with some level of impairment. 

What I hoped to gain from the workshop still applied, but I wanted more from it. I wanted the ability to work with individuals who had impairments; to improve their experience on the water and to increase their desire to be on the water.

The Advanced Communications Workshop

Speech & Language Impairments (SLI) 

Day one started by covering administrative content – etiquette, risk management, eligibility requirements, and best practices. The rest of the morning covered tailoring instruction for paddlers with speech & language impairments (SLI) and teaching techniques for best reaching people with SLI.

The classroom portion included a series of exercises to illustrate communication challenges. We worked through ways to overcome these challenges on the water. That was put to the test in the afternoon with a series of instructor-lead activities before the students had a chance to teach. 

Vision Impairments & Blindness (VI)

Day two focused on visual impairments. Again, practical exercises and teaching techniques first on land, then in water. I found the day difficult at times. Part of the time I’d be on the water leading others who were wearing blackout glasses. Portions of the water time had me wearing the glasses. 

While I could never know what it feels like to be blind, I had a much better understanding of how visual impairments impact paddle sports. Vision, or a lack of it, affects balance. Paddling at night can be disorienting. Now remove ALL visual communication. Then try to follow a leader through on a random course they set. Or lead others who cannot see.

The final activity was the capsize. We had to paddle out to a set point following directions, then capsize and exit – sightless. In the water we had to get the ‘swimmer’ back into the kayak.

Two things stood out for me:

  1. Wet-exiting and being in the water without the ability to see is a bit unnerving. It is a helpless feeling. I am fortunate to have more than enough practice to relax while in the water, and was sure I could self-recover. Following the instruction of my partner to do the assisted rescue – it was hard to imagine doing it with no experience. 
  2. I was comfortable in the role of rescuer. Having worked on clear communication for teaching the technique meant I didn’t need to make modifications to my process to rescue someone unable to see. 

Hearing Impairments and deafness (HI) 

Day three centered on hearing impairments and followed the same approach. The big takeaway is how difficult it can be leading or teaching someone unable to respond to audible cues. Whistles and banging on boats for distress are used on the water to get attention. Sound is omnidirectional – it doesn’t matter which way someone is facing or their position relative to another paddler. Without the ability to hear, the range of communication decreases. We’re reduced to line of sight – the line of sight of our student or trip participant.

And what if they’re turned away from you? 

My situational awareness for this portion of the workshop was definitely heightened. I found myself more focused on where paddlers were while I was teaching than I ordinarily would. As a student, picking up the activity we had to perform was difficult at times.

The final debrief

This workshop was invaluable. Immediately after getting on the water with both club outings and as an instructor, I was more aware of how I was communicating – what I was saying, how else I could get the information across.

  • I was more cognizant of where paddlers were and how I could communicate with them when needed.
  • I was paying more attention to body language and behavior of others to pick up on potential communications issues that weren’t disclosed.
  • I was also acutely aware of my own behavior on the water and how it  impacted others and their ability to communicate with me.

Beyond the understanding and the tools that will make me a better trip lead and instructor, the Advanced Communications Workshop has made me a better paddler.

Putting what I learned into practice

Two weeks after the workshop, I had a chance to practice the skills learned. I was working as an assistant guide for a group of 18 high school students on a trip that was part of their environmental stewardship program. 

The students had been pre-arranged in pairs to paddle the tandem kayaks. This was done ahead of time to minimize potential conflicts between paddlers (paddling tandem kayaks can be a challenge – they’re called ‘divorce boats’ for a reason). 

The lead guide placed the taller students in the stern to operate the rudder (they could better reach the pedals). While they were getting the pedals set, the program director approached me and mentioned that we might want to switch the girls in one of the boats. The student in back had, as it was described to me, a developmental disability. She had issues with long-term memory. She was extremely bright, but might not remember some steps when needed and had issues including mixing up right and left. 

Rather than react, I asked the director a few questions.

I found out the student would be fine if procedures were restated. I recommended we keep the positioning. There was no safety risk, any obstacle could be easily mitigated, and changing seats would single her out. But something else came to mind: By switching seats, we would take away an opportunity for the student to challenge herself, to succeed at something she’d normally have issues with.

On the water, I periodically followed up with the student in a way she likely wasn’t aware I knew about her disability. My words were carefully chosen. When I could sense frustration, I was able to reassure her that she was doing a great job.   

She ended up doing amazingly well, and at the end of the day the director told me she had had an incredible time.

Opportunity

Without question, what I gained from the Advanced Communications Workshop is incalculable.

I went into it to improve my skills as an instructor and trip leader in a broader sense. I met that goal. I came away with so much more.

A core reason I teach is to help others get on the water, to explore the Puget Sound, and to paddle safely. That I now can (and want to) help others who might not normally have that opportunity to experience it….priceless.