Paragliding can be successfully done by a wide range of people, and this is one of its greatest appeals. Many “adventure” or “extreme” sports require a good deal of physical fitness or high levels of skill and technique to master. Some, like leading difficult rock climbs, or carve-gybing a windsurfer at high speed, are beyond the capabilities of many people.
By contrast, flying a paraglider is really quite easy. First day students taking the controls of a dual wing can often soar a ridge, or circle up to cloudbase on a good day, with nothing more than advice from the pilot. (Launching and landing do require skills that are more demanding to master).
The structured training programme; starting with small flights on shallow slopes in good weather, and gradually increasing the height and demands on the pilot, whilst closely supervised by an instructor, is designed to get as many people through the course as safely as possible. However, it is possible to get a slightly unrealistic sense of security from this type of approach.
If you should make a mistake whilst flying and misjudge your landing approach for example, you could find yourself trying to manoeuvre into a small or hazardous area. Encounter some turbulent air, and the whole picture can change dramatically; the paraglider can collapse, drop dozens or even hundreds of feet, and be difficult or impossible to control within a very short time, requiring a decisive emergency action.
These situations are not common, can be minimised with good planning, and can generally be dealt with, but the experience can most definitely be an extreme one. If you keep flying long enough, it is likely that you will experience an “event” of this type.
You may, like many of us who fly, consider the risks worthwhile, and be happy to take responsibility for your own safety. But just because paragliding is easy to do, does not necessarily mean it is any more suitable for those who are less capable of dealing with the physical and mental demands it can make in certain situations.
As a rough guide: You should be in reasonable health; you should be able to walk up a fairly steep slope. You may fall to the ground from a standing position, you should be sufficiently robust to cope with this without injury. You should be able to run at least 20 metres and jump over a 40 cm obstacle.
Your eyesight should be at least good enough to drive a car. (You can wear spectacles). You will have to look all around you. Any medical conditions should be well controlled (e.g. diabetics should carry food and medication if required). If you have a history of heart disease, epilepsy, or anything else that might affect your ability to fly safely, a school will probably require a doctor’s letter attesting your fitness to fly.
People with a wide range of disabilities can fly paragliders very successfully. There are some limitations, reasonable eyesight being an obvious one, but it is well worth discussing your situation with your local instructor. Even if solo flying is not feasible, taking control when flying dual with another pilot is an option that is available to almost anyone.
The BHPA has a specialist project “Flyability” to help those who are disabled get into the air. There are contact details for this organisation on the BHPA website.