How to Live on a Boat With a Disability

I recently read an interesting article on the Living on a Narrowboat website about whether it’s possible to live on a canal boat with a physical disability. I once met a young man with an amputated leg who lived aboard with his girlfriend but it is quite rare to meet someone living aboard who is physically challenged. It’s interesting to me because my brother would love to live aboard again but feels that he probably can’t after a stroke reduced his mobility in his right arm and right leg. Do physical challenges make it impossible to live aboard?

A network of friends

Corinne Thomsett, director of Canal Voyagers Hotel Boats says, “Among our hotel boat guests, we used to deal with any number of minor disabilities, and I know that James on the Tranquil Rose hotel boat had a blind guest once, with his guide dog. I also knew a lovely fellow, with shortened arms (a Thalidomide disability) who lived aboard successfully, though he had a network of friends to help him with his cleaning and boating chores that aren’t easy to complete without full use of two arms.

Mobility is the biggest issue I would have thought, that would obstruct people from living aboard, being able to get on and off safely being the most important thing. If that can be overcome, then, nothing is insurmountable.”

Wheelchair access

Hertfordshire community boater John Bennett says,

“I can’t think of anyone with a wheelchair that I know, although I have seen someone with a wheelchair hoist to get them into their boat through a centre cockpit, and there was someone local that looked after his wife who was in a wheelchair, and they were both residential on their boat. There is a retired person that moved onto a boat recently on his own who is registered blind (although he has some sight) and is hard of hearing that is around here.”

Geraldine and Mike The Cheese BoatGeraldine Prescott lives aboard The Cheese Boat and travels the canals of England with her husband Michael selling home-made Welsh cheeses and Mike’s homemade chutneys. She was kind enough to share her thoughts with me.

Walking the plank

“The main problem with being on a narrow boat is the getting on and off bit – I use gang planks but I have to be helped down them by my husband. I can get off the normal way but it’s a struggle and I am scared of falling off and landing in the water or hurting myself.

Once on board I have no problem with leading a normal life. We have no adaptions inside. I do think it would be impossible to use a wheelchair inside a boat. I can only walk about 50 yards at a time so I use a disability scooter – it’s a small one which folds up and stands on the back deck. My husband has no problem getting it on and off the boat.

I do know of a couple of people who live on their own, both with MS. At the moment they are managing quite well but as the MS progresses it has become a real struggle. Again it’s the getting on and off the boat and having to tie the boat off – lack of strength to haul on a rope to get the boat onto the side of the canal.

I feel that a disabled person can quite easily live on a boat, but not on their own. There are problems with mooring up, changing gas bottles, and lifting anything off the roof i.e. bags of coal or wood. I am sure that most hire companies out there will agree that a disabled person can hire a boat but of course accompanied by an able bodied person(s) and I know that there are boats that do day trips and have facilities such as lifts to get on the boat, especially those in wheelchairs.”

It’s possible!

Geraldine’s story has confirmed to me what I had hoped; that living on a boat with a disability is possible with the right kind of help.  I’d love to get the message out there to anyone who is considering living on a boat or going on a boat holiday, that many things are possible with the right support.

If you’re unsure whether living on a boat is for you why not try a day trip or boating holiday? Several of our member organisations provide day trips on accessible boats and some provide canal boat holidays for disabled people and their family and friends. Search for a community boating organisation near you on our main website: The National Community Boats Association. 

What do you think? Do you know someone who would benefit from canal boating but hasn’t yet tried it?

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  1. Paratravler 18th March 2014 at 16:49 - Reply

    I love boats and love the ocean. My dream is to live on a sailboat one day and sail the oceans. Of course first I need to figure out how to make the boat more accommodating for my chair and myself. I went to the Miami boat show this past month and got some pretty good ideas thrown at me by respective boating companies.

    • Narrowboat Wife 18th March 2014 at 23:37 - Reply

      That sounds like a brilliant dream. Doing the research in to how to make it happen must be fun. Glad to hear you got some good ideas at the Miami boat show. I see from your blog you’re already travelling the world.

      • Paratravler 19th March 2014 at 18:31 - Reply

        Yes its been a great experience… going by plane is faster but there is nothing like going to new places by sea in my opinion 🙂

  2. Narrowboat Wife 18th March 2014 at 23:41 - Reply

    Perhaps you’ll come to England for a canal boat holiday? We have wheelchair accessible boats 🙂

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