disabled fishing
A wheelchair user fishing from an ADA pier; (photo/Shutterstock)

Anglers With Disabilities Find Slim Resources in the US

The nonprofit Fishing Has No Boundaries remains one of the few U.S. organizations dedicated to helping people with disabilities find ways to cast a line.

Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has just begun construction of its first American Disability Act-compliant fishing piers. (For reference, the ADA was signed into law in 1990.) These piers will reach 3 feet over the water and have railings all the way round, making them safe for disabled anglers of all kinds.

“You know there’s a lot of areas where people can’t access,” Jeff Koffron, Facilities Improvements Project Manager for Cedar Rapids, told the local ABC station. “Fishing is pretty hard to do because of the steep banks and so forth.”

Unfortunately, projects like the one in Iowa remain rare. While more local governments have built ADA-compliant fishing piers in recent years, angling for the disabled remains a difficult proposition across the country.

fishing has no boundaries
A volunteer helps a participant fish during a Fishing Has No Boundaries event through the Hayward, WI chapter; (photo/Fishing Has No Boundaries)

A Lack of Resources

The U.S. lacks any national database for finding places like Cedar Rapids’ Prairie Park. Some states have an access directory, but most don’t — including Iowa. A Google search shows many resources for disabled hunters, from nonprofits to state government sites to the NRA’s Adaptive Shooting Program. Yet, resources for disabled anglers remain scarce or nonexistent.

There’s not even a national standard for fishing licenses for the disabled. As a result, disabled anglers, including wounded veterans, children with autism, and the blind — must navigate a patchwork of conflicting state laws, often without any resources to help them.

“There’s a lot of demand for access to fishing by America’s disabled population,” said Kathy Overman, head of Fishing Has No Boundaries, one of the only groups in the U.S. focused on this issue. “But both the government and fishing industry have largely ignored them,” Overman continued.

“There is very little information out there for fishing for people with disabilities,” she said.

fishing
Volunteers help a participant get ready to fish in the annual event from the Hayward, WI chapter of Fishing Has No Boundaries; (photo/Fishing Has No Boundaries)

A Global Search for Information

A few countries in the world seem to be ahead of the curve — mostly in the United Kingdom.

Across the pond, there’s the British Disabled Angling Association. Ireland’s government offers a robust database of disabled fishing access points, as does Wales.

Yet, much of the world remains ignorant about how to build piers for the disabled. Or how to produce adaptive equipment for anglers who can only use one arm. Or how to even talk to people with disabilities.

Overman understands this disparity more than most. As the head of one of the few organizations dedicated to helping disabled anglers, she fields calls from all over the U.S. — and around the world.

About a year ago, she received a call from a local government in Spain wanting to know how to build an accessible fishing dock. She’s taken similar calls from a South African group wanting to help veterans and a Kenyan man trying to provide fishing opportunities for disabled orphans.

“We are a complicated world,” Overman said. “The squeaky wheel is gonna get the grease. The disabled in the US is a very unseen part of our society. It’s unseen and unheard. You don’t often hear it in the news.”

A Lack of Government Support

Fishing Has No Boundaries includes 18 chapters around the country — seven of which are in Wisconsin.

Unlike many nonprofits, the group hasn’t been able to get financial support from government grants. It runs strictly on private donations. The nonprofit applied for money through the CARES Act, a bit of 2020 legislation aimed at pandemic relief. But, according to Overman, federal officials denied them aid.

“Fishing is something that is inexpensive and gives people opportunity to get outside of their four walls,” she said. “COVID-19 put a lot of people behind that glass looking out.”

In Wisconsin, the Hayward chapter has held an annual fishing event for 37 years. Before the pandemic, the group saw 150-200 participants every year, according to Sabrina Morgan, the chapter’s head organizer.

The event offers adaptive equipment, like electric reels and adaptive rod holders, as well as guides and pontoon boats. Volunteers even help with fish cleaning so that disabled participants can take their fish home with them.

The participants represent a wide spectrum of disabilities, including both mental and physical limitations. They even take those who are completely paralyzed out on the water. No limitation is too great.

“In all honesty, it’s more difficult for the disabled to find things that really accommodate the things that they need,” Morgan said. “Even for our organization, it’s hard to get grants to help support the events that we hold.”

‘We All Need to Get Outdoors’

Man In Wheelchair Fishing From Dock
(Photo/Shutterstock)

While there might be a lack of official resources, the internet has started to make fishing with mobility limitations a little easier.

Move United, an affiliate of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, is dedicated to providing resources to disabled athletes. The site lists just two organizations for disabled anglers: Fishing Has No Boundaries and Project Healing Waters, a group that takes disabled veterans fly fishing.

However, Facebook and other sites have offered new ways to connect people seeking these opportunities.

Given the lack of official support, many disabled anglers have found other ways to get on the water. It can often mean relying on the generosity of groups not expressly dedicated to disabled fishing. In many cases, it could even be just an individual who’s willing to help.

For those who care about this issue, Overman challenges them to look around their own community.

“We all need to get outdoors, and we need to realize that sometimes it’s our neighbor that needs help,” Overman said. “You might find in a conversation with them that they used to go fishing, but they can’t anymore on their own because they had a stroke. Helping them get there would create new memories, and all it took was someone reaching out a helping hand.”

Fishing Has No Boundaries accepts donations here, and will also help establish new chapters — for those willing to reach out.

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Andrew McLemore
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An award-winning journalist and photographer, Andrew McLemore brings more than 14 years of experience to his position as Associate News Editor for Lola Digital Media. Andrew is a musician, climber and traveler who currently lives in Cuenca, Ecuador, which he uses as a home base for adventures throughout the Americas. When he's not writing, playing gigs or exploring the outdoors, he's hanging out with his dog Campana.