In less than six months of working together, a UC Irvine doctoral candidate and the director of a charitable organization offering recreational therapy for the visually impaired have developed special canoes that allow the blind to paddle solo.
The idea had been on the mind of the nonprofit Makapo Aquatics Project’s executive director, RJ De Rama, for several years, but plans were roadblocked by expensive designs or labor-intensive project proposals.
The missing link, as it turned out, was UCI graduate student Mark Baldwin, who has a knack for creating low-cost, do-it-yourself solutions for challenges facing the blind community.
“Our organization is always looking for ways to improve the blind person’s experience … and the solutions are not necessarily the most difficult. It just takes the expertise to solve the problem,” De Rama said. “Mark was the right guy because he already was familiar with working with the blind community.”
De Rama, who went legally blind in 2004 due to cancer in both eyes, met Baldwin through a connection at his son’s school. They had their first meeting in late December, were testing a preliminary design in May and had a working product by June 13.
Rather than creating an entirely new canoe, Baldwin, alongside his partner and fellow graduate student Sen Hirano, modified one of Makapo’s existing boats. They were backed with the support of the UCI informatics department, a branch of computer and information sciences. This allowed them to work on the design at the university’s labs.
The canoe uses a transmitter and receiver pair similar to what operates remote control cars. A sighted person can steer the canoe from a launch boat behind them.
“One of my goals for pretty much anything I do is I try to take a DIY approach for any assisted technology because most of it is very expensive,” Baldwin said. “For this, I turned to remote control hobbyists, which is a thriving community.”
The transmitter and receiver pair and a battery were purchased at a hobby store, and the remainder of the design involved creating a waterproof enclosure for them to be attached to the boat.
The total redesign cost was $250 for the whole system, according to Baldwin.
Currently, the redesigned canoes are used only by adults and kept within the Back Bay of the Newport Aquatics Center, but De Rama has goals of eventually taking them into the open ocean. The alternative option currently offered by Makapo is for visually impaired paddlers to participate in six-person canoes, which include at least one sighted person to steer.
“As disabled people, we’re always looking for ways to be more independent,” De Rama said. “To be able to paddle one of these canoes, there’s a lot of benefits to it. You can go by yourself, so you don’t have to make sure you coordinate with five or six other people … And you get a better idea of how to paddle from a technique standpoint.”
Paddlers Chuck Dill and his two brothers, Tim Dill and Mark Resor, are all blind due to a rare eye disease, choroideremia. They got involved with Makapo not long after Chuck Dill’s husband died in December 2016.
The sport, he said, helped him to stay positive.
“When I went down (to Makapo) that first time, I thought, ‘These people are awesome!’” Dill said. “They’re just so outgoing, and it’s a really great group of people.”
Dill, 59, is training three times a week for an upcoming six-person canoe race, but he has only used the new solo canoe once so far.
“The nice thing about it is there’s none of this thing about trying to keep in time with others,” Dill said. “But it’s also tougher because you only have one person to answer to — and that’s yourself.”
Dill compared the quietness of paddling alone in the new canoe to the experience of skydiving.
“There’s such a tranquility,” Dill said. “The freedom to be out and be by yourself is amazing.”
Makapo works with the National Accreditation Council for Blind and Low Vision Services, which supported the redesign project.
“Working with NAC, it’s this great culture of ‘Yes, let’s help as many people as we can,’” De Rama said.
The organization also offers a children’s paddling program, which has been expanded to include kids with various special needs other than visual impairment.
On Oct. 13, blind paddler Andrew Skvarla used the redesign in a 4-mile race, an accomplishment received with massive applause by the audience at the Newport Aquatics Center.
“People enjoy seeing anything that improves the quality of life for people with disabilities,” Baldwin said. “It truly is an amazing community … It’s a real sport, and they’re real athletes.”