The charity making life better by water

Bringing our waters to everyone

Because we believe life is better by water, we do everything we can to ensure our canals and rivers are open and accessible to everyone. That’s why we welcome people living with disabilities to our waterways and towpaths and make sure our activities and opportunities are open to all.

Tracey Clarke and her support dog

“The conversation is very much about what you can do, rather than what you can't,” explains national boating manager, Matthew Symonds, as he reflects on our regular online meetings with boaters with disabilities.

“One thing we hear a lot is how free many people feel as a boater. If you have the right help and support, exploring our waterways can be liberating. Many people have moved off land and onto water by building boats that support their lifestyle. They love it and say it has enriched their lives.

That said, we're certainly not in a place where everything is perfect. For many years our welfare team have offered one-to-one support to keep people living with disability afloat. But our disabled boaters forums were set up so we could listen to a wider group and address common challenges and concerns more directly.

There's so many positive things that have come out of this group. We now have listings of accessible moorings on our website, which show where people can easily tie up, get onto flat paths and access the local town, with shops, toilets and car parking all on hand. There's even links to google street-view so people can see if a mooring site meets their needs. Each person's needs are unique, so rather than pre-judging what people can or can't do, we enable them wherever we can.”

Accessible moorings in Central Birmingham

In the future, the Trust plan to prioritise these accessible moorings, just like a disabled parking spot at your local supermarket. As Matthew explains, we now have a yellow ‘‘Trust Aware' badge that boaters can display to indicate that they might have exemptions to moor up for a little longer than other licence holders without a badge. This year, disabled boaters will also be able to find out on our website where volunteer lock keepers operate, to help them plan their cruise and see where assistance is available.

He tells Waterfront that like all other public landowners, we have a duty in law to try to make sure where possible our towpaths, bridges and locks are accessible. Of course, with a 200 year old network, we have heritage constraints to balance too. This is a key part of the millions of pounds we spend each year to improve our canals and rivers. Our accessibility map makes it easy find points on over 2,000 miles of our towpaths where it's easier to get onto our towpaths, whether you are in a wheelchair or simply behind a child's pushchair.

Matthew says it's important for towpath users to be aware of the needs of people living with disabilities too: “Many people call for us to slow down cyclists on the towpath with speed bumps or barriers, but measures like these make towpaths inaccessible to people with mobility issues. Trying to solve a problem for one group can just create another problem for another. It's also important to be kind, slow down and think about people who are hearing or sight impaired."

Tracey Clarke for instance, has a fascinating story to tell about how her assistance dogs helped her adapt to life afloat. Tracey has become a leading light in our disabled boaters forum and represents the views of people living with disabilities on our National Council. Listening to people like Tracey helps make sure accessibility and equality lie at the heart of everything we do.

Our Let's events positively encourage participation by all-comers, and our regional teams reach out to local community groups to encourage people with mental or physical health challenges to feel the benefits of walking, paddling, cycling or volunteering by water. Our free Let's Fish! sessions have been particularly embraced for the calmness and stillness they bring to the lives of people with autism or ADHD. As Matthew outlines, we also support many charities and organisations who help people living with disabilities get onto the water, such as the Baldwin Trust in Leicester: “These small charities run by volunteers do brilliant work to give all sorts of people the chance to spend time afloat.”

And he notes that we also welcome staff and volunteers of all abilities and train everyone to think about how they can help others: “Inclusion is a key part of everyone's job, whether that's simply answering the phone in the right way, making our website easy to read, or offering information in whatever format people need it. Our whole team is encouraged to make our canals and rivers welcoming to everyone.”

Last Edited: 30 May 2022

photo of a location on the canals
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