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Disabilities no longer a barrier to Great Lakes

Julie Cataldo prepares to be lifted from her wheelchair into an accessible kayak on the Erie Canal.
Veronica Volk
Julie Cataldo prepares to be lifted from her wheelchair into an accessible kayak on the Erie Canal.
Julie Cataldo prepares to be lifted from her wheelchair into an accessible kayak on the Erie Canal.
Credit Veronica Volk / WXXI News
Julie Cataldo prepares to be lifted from her wheelchair into an accessible kayak on the Erie Canal.

Julie Cataldo is strapped into a harness as she sits in her wheelchair just a few feet from the edge of the Erie Canal. A hydraulic lift hoists her from the chair and swings her out over the water.

The lift lowers her into a kayak, and its operator adjusts her seat.

This is Cataldo’s second time in a single kayak, and in a few minutes, she’s cruising alone down the Canal near Rochester, N.Y.

“I can move in the water,” Cataldo says. “I'm never going to be an expert kayaker, but I can at least make the kayak go.”

Cataldo has cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that affects her mobility. She found out about adaptive kayaking at the Erie Canal Boat Company a few years ago. Because of the lift, she can get into the kayak, and because of the kayak’s special seat and a few safety features, she’s properly supported. 

“It's nice to have other options and just get outdoors,” she says. “I go outside when I'm home, but I don't really zoom around the neighborhood, I don't really find that fun.”

A decade ago, you wouldn’t have found accessible kayaks in the Erie Canal, or hydraulic lifts on the water’s edge. Anita O’Brien says businesses that cater to people with disabilities are expanding all across the Great Lakes region, because people are demanding it.

“People with disabilities are becoming more of a self-advocate,” she says.

O’Brien is the owner of Rochester Accessible Adventures. She helps companies add accessible equipment and activities to their everyday operations.

“The internet has given people the power, their own power, to Google adaptive kayaking, adaptive biking,” she says. Once people learn these activities are possible for people with disabilities, O’Brien says, “then they’re looking around and saying, Where can I do that?”

For Pete Abley, the owner of the Erie Canal Boat Company, it was an easy business decision to provide that opportunity.

“Doing the research we find that 20 percent of the population base needs some kind of assistance,” Abley says. “So we decided that that would be a good avenue to pursue.”

Providing those opportunities is good for communities as a whole, according to the University at Buffalo's IDeA Center -- short for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access.

“I look at disability as just simply a mismatch between the demands of the environment and the abilities of people,” says Victor Paquet, an engineer who works with the IDeA Center. “It’s that simple.”

The IDeA Center works to promote inclusivity, not just accessibility.

That means making sure environments are available to all kinds of people – those who use wheelchairs, moms with strollers, or even little kids. For environments that have already been constructed, like the Erie Canal, or for natural environments like a beach, it's about designing and implementing technology to make it accessible.

Paquet knows firsthand about accessibility issues because some of his relatives use a wheelchair. On their annual beach vacation, he says his mother and niece used a special beach wheelchair, made with PVC piping and oversized tires, to get everyone near that water.

“And the happiness that access to the water can provide to not only individuals that wouldn't be able to get there but to the whole family is very important,” he says. “It's what vacations are about.”

Cataldo agrees. Even though she’s in a single kayak right now, she has more fun with other people. Just last year, for her 50th birthday, she and a group of friends went kayaking together.

“And it was just, for me, a different way to celebrate my birthday and just get outside and be together but also have something fun to do.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the IDeA Center's university affiliation.

Copyright 2021 Great Lakes Today. To see more, visit .

Veronica Volk is the Great Lakes Reporter/Producer for WXXI News, exploring environmental and economic issues, water, and wildlife throughout the region for radio, television, and the web.