The nonprofit Fishing Has No Boundaries remains one of the few American 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 docks. (For reference, the ADA was signed into law in 1990.) These piers will reach 3 feet above the water and have railings all around, making them safe for disabled anglers of all kinds.
“You know there’s a lot of areas that people can’t get to,” Jeff Koffron, facilities improvement project manager for Cedar Rapids, told the local. ABC station. “Fishing is quite difficult to do due to steep banks etc.”
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 challenging proposition across the country.
A lack of resources
The United States does not have a national database for finding places like Cedar Rapids Grassland Park. Some states have an access directory, but most do not, including Iowa. A Google search shows many resources for hunters with disabilities, from nonprofit organizations to state government sites to the NRA’s adaptive shooting program. Yet resources for anglers with disabilities remain scarce or non-existent.
There is not even a national standard for fishing licenses for people with disabilities. As a result, anglers with disabilities, including injured veterans, children with autism and the blind, must navigate a patchwork of conflicting state laws, often with no 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 borders, one of the only groups in the United States to focus on this issue. “But the government and the fishing industry have largely ignored them,” Overman continued.
“There is very little information about fishing for people with disabilities,” she said.
A global search for information
A few countries around the world seem to be ahead of the curve, mainly the UK.
On the other side of the pond, there is the British Disabled Angling Association. The Irish government is proposing a robust database disabled fishing access points, as well as Wales.
Yet much of the world still doesn’t know how to build piers for people with disabilities. Or how to produce gear suitable for anglers who can only use one arm. Or how to even talk to people with disabilities.
Overman understands this disparity more than anyone. As head of one of the few organizations dedicated to helping anglers with disabilities, she answers calls from across the United States — and around the world.
About a year ago, she received a call from a local government in Spain asking how to build an accessible fishing pier. She received similar calls from a South African group wanting to help veterans and from a Kenyan man trying to provide fishing opportunities for disabled orphans.
“We’re a complicated world,” Overman said. “The squeaky wheel is going to get the grease. People with disabilities in the United States are a very invisible part of our society. It’s invisible and unheard of. You don’t hear it often in the news.
A lack of government support
Fishing Has No Borders has 18 chapters across the country, including seven in Wisconsin.
Unlike many nonprofit organizations, the group was unable to obtain financial support from government grants. It operates strictly through private donations. The non-profit organization requested money through the CARES Act, a bit of 2020 legislation aimed at alleviating the pandemic. But, according to Overman, the federal authorities refused their help.
“Fishing is something that is cheap and gives people the opportunity to get out of their homes,” she said. “COVID-19 has put a lot of people behind that glass to watch out.”
In Wisconsin, the Hayward Chapter has held an annual fishing event for 37 years. Before the pandemic, the group had 150 to 200 attendees each year, according to Sabrina Morgan, the chapter’s chief organizer.
The event offers adapted equipment, such as electric reels and adaptive rod holders, as well as guides and pontoon boats. Volunteers even help with fish cleaning so participants with disabilities can take their fish home.
Participants represent a wide range of disabilities, including mental and physical limitations. They even take those who are completely paralyzed out onto the water. No limitation is too great.
“In all honesty, it’s harder for people with disabilities to find things that really meet the needs they need,” Morgan said. “Even for our organization, it is difficult to obtain grants to help support the events we organize.”
“We all need to get out”
Although there may be a lack of official resources, the internet has started to make fishing with reduced mobility a little easier.
Move United, an affiliate of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, is dedicated to providing resources for athletes with disabilities. The site only lists two organizations for anglers with disabilities: Fishing Has No Boundaries and Healing Waters Projecta group that takes disabled veterans fly fishing.
However, Facebook and other sites have offered new ways to connect people seeking these opportunities.
Lacking official support, many anglers with disabilities have found other ways to get in the water. This often means relying on the generosity of groups not specifically dedicated to disabled fishing. In many cases, it might even just be someone willing to help.
For those who care about this question, Overman challenges them to look around their own community.
“We all need to get out and we have to realize that sometimes it’s our neighbor who needs help,” Overman said. “You might find out in a conversation with them that they used to go fishing, but they can’t on their own anymore because they had a stroke. Helping them get there would create new memories, and all it took was someone to reach out.
Fishing has no borders accepts donations hereand will also help establish new chapters – for those who wish to reach out.