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News article created on 29 October 2013

How can we make our canals as accessible as possible?

It's pretty clear from looking at our canal network that awareness of and accommodation for disabled people was pretty non existent when our canals were built 200 years ago.

During the summer I met with a disabled boater to chat about some of the challenges faced by boaters with limited mobility and other disabilities. It's pretty clear from looking at our canal network that awareness of and accommodation for disabled people was pretty non existent when our canals were built 200 years ago.

Thankfully attitudes to disability have changed enormously since the canals were constructed. Last years Paralympics demonstrated that there should be few things that can't be done by disabled and able bodies people.

My conversation touched on many different issues facing disabled boaters. Access to level mooring sites, level access towpaths without bumps and steps and challenges opening manually operated (and often quite heavy) locks and bridges.

Some things are easier to resolve than others, for example filling in rutted or uneven towpaths can be resolved fairly swiftly. Upgrading mooring sites and locks takes much longer, is much costlier and can come up against heritage or environmental issues. 

Mooring for disabled boaters is another area that would benefit from some consideration across the Canal & River Trust network. At the moment the designated disabled moorings are often located sporadically (making it difficult for disabled boaters continually navigating) and tend to have been installed because of a specific request rather than a strategic overview of where they are needed.

Guidance on who can use disabled moorings is also not as clear as it could be. Currently there is no blue badge for boats as there is for disabled parking, although many boaters use a photocopy of their parking badge, not all boaters drive so some won't have these.

Of course the things I've discussed are not just issues for disabled boaters, many people have different access issues even though they may not be disabled - for example, parents with buggies or prams, and those who have limited mobility for a short time such as pregnant women and people with a bad back (I had one of those for a year so know what that's like).

Having conversations and identifying things that could be improved to make our canals and rivers more accessible for all is an important first step. However we need to be realistic and recognise that will take considerable time and investment (as the £10 million recently secured to improve just 37 miles towpaths in Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester shows) by the Canal & River Trust (and other partners) before we will be able to make the network as accessible as possible - but we can and should make a start.

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The boating team

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