Several years ago, I worked with a patient in an outpatient therapy clinic to do a simulated transfer to his kayak in preparation for getting out on beautiful Flathead Lake in western Montana. This patient had a stroke two years prior, and I had been his occupational therapist for several months, working on getting him back to activities he used to enjoy: boating, fishing, fixing cars, etc. It took two therapists and his wife to assist with this transfer and simply put, it was a disaster. I kept thinking there had to be a better way to get him back on the water, but I was stumped.
Fast forward two years. As director of Montana’s AT Program, MonTECH, I was now in a position to make broader change via AT tools and services. When our ATP (assistive technology professional) forwarded me a video (https://youtu.be/vUVoc8a7EV8) of a man in a wheelchair using an adaptive dock to independently access a lake, I marveled at how seamlessly he could transfer in and out of his kayak. We both immediately thought of dozens of stunning lakes in Montana and the people who could benefit from a similar system.
The idea stuck with me and in early 2022, MonTECH applied for an expanded impact grant from the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation. In 2016, we used a Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation grant to fund adaptive bicycles in five different locations across Montana (a project called “Wheels Across Montana” (WAM)). With this expanded impact funding, our plan was to purchase and install five accessible kayak/canoe launches on lakes across Montana. The boat launches include a transfer bench set-up, overhead straps to capitalize on upper body strength, and bilateral handrails to help pull oneself out and back in the water. In a nod to our prior program, WAM, we chose to call this new project FAM (“Floating Across Montana”).
During the application process, I found valuable partners dedicated to accessible recreation at Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) and the staff at BoardSafe, the dock attachment manufacturer. Montana FWP committed to working with MonTECH to find appropriate sites to install the docks (and agreed to maintain them in the future) and BoardSafe worked with us on the requirements for sites so their equipment would fit appropriately.
FAM received the funding, and we got right to work. We used crowdsourcing tools to gather a list of potential sites across the state and FWP narrowed down the sites to our best options. We vacationed with our tape measures so we could take pictures and measure sites as opportunities arose.
Along the way, we learned that very few FWP-managed lakes in Montana have enough built-in accessibility or required infrastructure to house these dock attachments. I wish I could tell you that a year into our grant cycle, our docks are all installed for summer fun in 2023, but we’re not quite there yet. Instead, we’ve embraced the chance to reach out to additional partners who manage Montana lakes, finding accessibility champions at the Bureau of Land Management, the US Forest Service, tribal fish and wildlife partners, the Montana State Parks Foundation, and at city-managed lakes. We’ve had many fruitful conversations about the need to build accessible parking, bathrooms, and paths to water before being able to install these dock attachments. These conversations always include mention of universal design for future builds so that all Montanans have improved access to the great outdoors. And we are very close to shipping out our five docks from where they’re being housed in Pennsylvania for the long journey to Montana.
As we look ahead to summer 2024 and the installation of these docks, I can’t help but be excited by the thought of seeing my former patient successfully get out on the water without needing extra assistance, thanks to these docks. The process is taking a bit longer than we expected, but we’ve learned so much along the way to make this project stronger and more sustainable, with opportunities for replication across our state and in many other communities across the country.