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Essential eligibility criteria for paddling should focus on ability rather than disability

This is an excerpt from Canoeing and Kayaking for People With Disabilities by Janet Zeller.

Developing Essential Eligibility Criteria

Essential eligibility criteria takes the guesswork out of who should participate in your program. It gives potential participants and the program providers the information they need to make an accurate and objective assessment when deciding if the participant's abilities are appropriate to participate safely in the activity. Essential eligibility criteria are simply the essential skills each participant is required to perform for safety in that activity, in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Title III Section 302 (b) (2) (A) (i) requirement that eligibility criteria be equally applied to all potential participants.

Paddling instructors, outfitters, and paddling program providers provide a wide spectrum of activities and programs. The purpose of essential eligibility criteria is to establish whether a person can participate in an activity based on his ability to perform the activity's basic functions. To participate in an activity, all potential clients must be able to meet the nondiscriminatory essential eligibility criteria established by the instructor, outfitter, or program provider for that specific activity.

The essential eligibility criteria for each program must be provided to all potential clients. It can be posted on a Web site as a portion of the specific program's description, on any materials provided to the potential client, and as part of the registration materials signed by the client. The key is that the essential eligibility criteria must be applied to all potential clients. If the essential eligibility criteria are applied only to potential clients who have disabilities, the criteria would likely be considered discriminatory when challenged legally.

In reality, most instructors, outfitters, and program providers already apply the concept of essential eligibility criteria to potential clients. They use the guidelines in determining which potential clients are likely to be able to participate safely in the program. The problem is that the criteria for many programs are only in the programmer's head rather than in writing. As a result, two mistakes can be made in applying the criteria to a potential participant with a disability:

  • Subjectivity. The guidelines are often subjective because most instructors, outfitters, and program providers pass on their teaching traditions orally, which invites inconsistency. This approach could spell trouble if they are ever challenged on whether they apply the criteria equally to everyone. You need to document your eligibility criteria carefully.
  • Stereotyping. Many program providers are forced to make quick assessments of potential clients' abilities without any real knowledge of their capabilities. Many people have stereotypes about the abilities of people with disabilities. When these stereotypes shape the decision-making process, the chances increase of unfairly assessing the ability of a potential client with a disability, resulting in discrimination.

The purpose of developing essential eligibility criteria is to give you and the potential client the information you need to make an accurate, objective assessment when deciding whether the person's abilities are appropriate for the program. You must be able to explain clearly the criteria for participation to the potential participant. It must not be designed or tend to screen out an individual with a disability or any class of individuals with disabilities from an equal opportunity to participate. Instead, the criteria must be based on functional components necessary for remaining safe and be applied equally to every potential client. Instead of disqualifying a person from registering for a course or a trip because the potential client uses a wheelchair, you must use the same eligibility criteria for safe participation as you use with all potential participants.

The model suggested here is similar to that of job descriptions required of employers. Employers must identify the essential and nonessential functions of a job and then determine whether the person can perform those essential functions. Following this logic, you must identify the basic eligibility criteria necessary for people to participate safely in your program or activity. That information should be posted, and each potential participant must be given the opportunity to evaluate his or her ability to meet those criteria. If a person states that she can meet the safety-based participation criteria and then is unable to, she can be removed from the program.

Steps to Developing Nondiscriminatory Essential Eligibility Criteria

Developing guidelines for what your clients must be able to do should be an easy process. You probably already have guidelines in your head; you just need to write them down in a nondiscriminatory way. Think of this step as an exercise in writing down commonsense functions, and you are well on the way to success! The key is that essential eligibility criteria focus on ability rather than disability. Referring to an activity in terms of who can participate, rather than in terms of who can't, counteracts the tendency to stereotype what a person with a disability can do. Follow these steps:

  1. Think in terms of the physical and mental abilities necessary for participation in your programs and activities. What does it take to participate in the specific activities of your program such as getting into a canoe or sea kayak and using a paddle? Do participants have to be able to think quickly? Do they have to be strong? Do they have to be able to understand directions? Does your program require an understanding of highly technical factors? Could adaptive equipment be used?
  2. Divide the activity into the basic stages of participation (i.e., putting on equipment, using equipment, and returning equipment to a specific area). In effect, you need to separate the program into the discrete activities or variables that make it up. Could a companion safely assist a person in the completion of the task?
  3. Consider the abilities necessary for remaining safe. What are the most likely causes of death or injury involved with that activity, and what do participants need to do to avoid them?
  4. Prioritize the stages described in step 2 into the critical abilities necessary for safety. For example, when paddling a canoe, the ability to remain seated and balanced (with support if needed) is a higher safety priority than the ability to execute specific paddle strokes.
  5. Do not use limiting words such as walk, climb, or see. Instead, describe the result that must be achieved in nondiscriminatory terms, such as access, ascend, or identify.
  6. Consider basic rules of etiquette that participants must follow. These issues may include yielding to others who have the right of way or waiting for the rest of the group to catch up.
  7. Determine whether the guidelines may be satisfactorily met with the help of a companion. A person may not be able to perform a function independently, but might easily do it with the help of a friend or family member.
  8. Edit for simplicity. Stick to the basic physical or mental abilities necessary for participation-the fewer the better.

The following examples are possible essential eligibility requirements for a paddling program.

Example 1
Use of a canoe at a rental facility, on a guided trip, or at a day camp

  • Equipment: Participants must wear all protective equipment recommended or required by industry standards.
  • Entering and exiting: Participants must be able to enter and exit the canoe independently or with the assistance of a companion, staff member, or counselor.
  • Seating: Participants must be able to remain seated and balanced, using adaptive support if necessary.
  • Paddling: At least one person in the canoe must have the ability to move it through the water in a stable manner and take it to the designated landing area.
  • Safety: In the event of a capsize, the canoeists must have:
    • Wet exits: The ability to get out independently from under the watercraft.
    • Self-rescue: The ability to right oneself, remain faceup in the water with the aid of a life jacket, and make progress to the shoreline.
  • Land activities: Participants must be able to move about the camp independently or with the assistance of a companion on trips, including overnight camping.

Example 2
An ACA flatwater Quick Start (3-hour) or Introduction to Paddling (6-hour) session

  • Each participant must be 18 years or older or accompanied by an adult.
  • Each participant must be able to manage all personal care and mobility independently or with the assistance of a companion who accompanies them.
  • Each participant must be able to get in and out of a kayak independently or with the assistance of a companion following instruction.
  • Each participant must be comfortable in the water including floating on his or her back independently with a properly fitted life jacket, turning from facedown to faceup independently while wearing a properly fitted life jacket, and holding his or her breath while under water.
  • Each participant must be able to maintain a balanced, upright position when seated in a kayak with adaptations if needed. Note: No adaptations providinghead or neck support will be accepted.

This is an excerpt from Canoeing and Kayaking for People With Disabilities.

More Excerpts From Canoeing and Kayaking for People With Disabilities