Adaptive ski program to educate the public 

If and when the Vancouver and Whistler are successful in their bid to host the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, they will also win the right to host the Winter Paralympic Games in the same year.

The Whistler Adaptive Ski Program (WASP), which is working to make the mountains accessible to everyone, is excited by the idea.

"We're the number one resort in North America, and we should have the number one adaptive ski program to go with it," says Helen Cooke, a disabled skier who volunteers in fund-raising and promotions for WASP. "The Olympics can help to do that."

Starting this weekend, WASP will be hosting a booth at the Roundhouse Lodge to answer questions and show off the equipment adaptive skiers use.

"People are quite curious to find out how a blind skier makes it to the bottom of the mountain, or how the sit-skis work, and this is their chance to find out," says Cooke.

"The program has expanded largely in the past two years, and we're going to try and take it to the next level here because the interest here is huge."

There is one full-time employee for the program, and 25 full-time volunteers who receive ski passes in exchange for 25 volunteer days. There are also about 50 part-time volunteers who help out when they can.

Even with that large a volunteer staff, the program has to turn people away almost daily. A group of six adaptive skiers can take as many as 12 volunteers, depending on their disability, and there isn't enough equipment to go around.

Winterpark, Colorado is the undisputed leader in the field, with dozens of instructors certified to teach disabled skiers, and the ability to handle dozens of disabled skiers every day. Cooke feels Whistler Village as a whole is almost as accessible as Winterpark, and believes that all it would take to make Whistler's adaptive ski program rival Winterpark's is the right funding.

Winterpark's program, once the initial investment was made, has become self funding due to the sheer volume of disabled skiers it serves - about 25 a day.

The equipment isn't cheap - a sit-ski costs approximately $3,000 and blind skiers require hearing aids and microphones to stay in contact with their guides. However, with more skiers taking advantage of the technology, the amount of equipment is increasing.

"It's important for the disabled to maintain a sense of freedom and equality, and the mountains are a place where we can achieve that," says Cooke. "We can all appreciate the experience equally."

To date, the adaptive skier program has helped people who have spinal injuries, are blind, deaf, autistic, have cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, Down's syndrome, or severe cases of attention deficit disorder.

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