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Raising the bar

Disabled skiers breaking down social and personal barriers

"The only time we are truly victims is when we decide to give up the freedom to be able to chose and move forward and reach our full potential."

— Rick Hansen in Whistler, April 2001.

As any beginner knows, learning to ski or snowboard isn't an easy task. For starters, skis have minds of their own and a tendency to cross one another, resulting in a frantic bout of useless pole waving and the use of that infamous ski phrase: "yard sale."

For beginner snowboarders, the descriptions "balance and control" are not part of their vocabulary, as the word "tail-bone" takes centre stage. Yet people are still out there learning the ropes, whether for fun or competitive purposes.

But the road for disabled skiers begins long before they reach the snow. Often the first hurdles are gaining mobility or learning to use a crosswalk, steps taken well in advance of any dreams of skiing or competitive racing. Yet despite the challenges, skiers with disabilities are out there, doing the big shoots and speed runs – whether in a sit ski, using one leg or an artificial limb, or by receiving "sight" directions through a walkie-talkie inside their helmet.

A local program that is helping open up the slopes to people with disabilities is the Whistler Adaptive Ski Program. The largely volunteer-run organization grew out of the Disabled Skiers Association of British Columbia, which was formed in 1974. The program was first launched locally under the name of the Whistler Disabled Ski Club in 1985. The name was changed to Alpine Access Ability in 1997. This year has seen yet another change to its current name, in a bid to move towards a more "enabling" image, and away from the stigma associated with disabilities.

Sian Blythe, the program director, says the range of disabled people using the service is extensive and growing.

"We have blind skiers, amputees, paraplegics and quadriplegics who use the program, as well as children with attention-deficit or hyperactivity disorders, Down’s Syndrome and autistic people."

As a trained nurse, Blythe says she became involved in disabled skiing through a spinal injury recovery program, called Back Up, in the United Kingdom. She says she was so inspired by the huge difference skiing could bring to people’s lives that she carried on the work after moving to Canada.

One such success story of disabled skiing is Steve Napier, one of the program’s 80 volunteers this season and a member of the British Disabled Ski Team. Formerly a recreational skier, Napier became a paraplegic after a motorcycle accident in the U.K. He says it took his friends a year to persuade him to take up his old sport again because he didn’t want to start over. But he says it was the best thing he could have done.

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