The Lowdown on Disabled Skiing

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The hugely successful 2012 London Paralympics increased public awareness of disabled sport and showed that there truly is no limit to what can be achieved by the human body when allied to the sheer will to succeed. This sets the scene for an outstanding XI Paralympic Winter Games in Russia next March, with the hope of similar achievements to be seen in all disabled winter sports. Skiing and snowboarding have changed rapidly over the past decade with technological developments in skis, snowboards, helmets and other safety equipment and procedures, and disabled skiing has not been left behind.

The US Paralympic skiers are already primed for action, with medals under their belts and that essential winning attitude – typified by the Paralympic alpine skier, Andrew Kurka. As a teenager he was a freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestler with Olympic ambitions. After a car accident at the age of 13 he was left unable to walk. His physiotherapist suggested he try adaptive skiing, but he was reluctant. After trying it, he never looked back. He remembers his old wrestling coach reminding him that whatever he thought of his own abilities, someone else would always be better. This philosophy of never resting on your laurels but to continually aim higher has stood him in good stead and he is now poised to realize his Olympic ambitions in a completely different sport.




Disabled skiers use three different types of ski adapted to a variety of abilities. The Mono-Ski has a bucket seat mounted on a single ski and has been developed for skiers with multiple leg amputations, spinal injures resulting in paralysis of the lower body, or spina bifida. Using the Mono-Ski requires superior upper body strength as steering is done solely by moving the upper body; the arms are used as an able-bodied skier would, to help with balance and in turns, but with the aid of shortened ski poles. The Sit-Ski is an older style of ski for people with similar disabilities, but instead of a single ski has something like a cross between a broad ski and a narrow sled. Control and movement is achieved just as with the Mono-Ski, although it is more stable and has a broader footprint, making it more suited to skiers with less upper body strength.



The Bi-Ski is similar to the Mono-Ski, with a bucket seat mounted on two skis. This is used by skiers whose legs are intact but who have restricted control due to multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, or spinal chord or brain injuries. The Four-Track is designed for skiers lacking good lateral control, and uses two skis with outriggers. The Ski Bike is just what it sounds like: a short bicycle-type frame complete with small seat and handlebars, but with two narrow skis in place of wheels; in addition, the skier wears a small ski on each foot. This was originally designed as a fun skiing machine for the able-bodied, but is successfully used by leg amputees who are able to wear their artificial limbs while skiing.

Growing popularity

There are now facilities and instructors for adaptive skiing in many skiing areas of Europe and North America, which is helping to make the sport more popular. This has involved more than just opening up the slopes to disabled skiers – that’s the easy part. Ski lifts need to be adapted so that there is somewhere to leave wheelchairs and that transferring from wheelchair to adapted ski is made easy. There is also the question of access to public restrooms, cafés, restaurants and hotels. Changing attitudes towards disability has ensured that these sorts of improvement are becoming more common. The owners of ski resorts now see adaptations for disabled skiers as a means of increasing their income rather than a costly and unnecessary inconvenience, and they recognize that people with limited mobility but who do not use a wheelchair can also benefit. The 2012 Paralympics helped to change the attitudes of able-bodied people to the disabled, which in many cases has also helped change how the disabled view their own needs and society’s blindness to them. ‘Using the resources available to you isn’t a cry for help, it’s networking. You would do it for your career so why not in other parts of your life…’ – wise words from the UK website, and who would disagree?

Adaptive skiing programs

Crystal Ski Holidays specializes in adaptive skiing holidays in Europe and the US and ensures that resorts are fully up to standard with qualified adaptive skiing instructors and reps at the resort, and they can arrange assistance at airports and for transfers. Some new European resorts such as Les Arcs 1950 in the French Alps are designed to accommodate adaptive skiers; for example, Les Arcs has an easily accessible chairlift right in the center of the village, where the roads are pedestrianized.

The Swiss Association Handiconcept is a non-profit organization set up to collect funds and marshal resources to enable disabled people to take part in sport. At the Swiss Alpine resort of Champéry, they run training programs for adaptive skiing that involves the use of the Dualski or Tandemski, where a standing accompanist guides the skiing apparatus from behind, enabling partially or totally dependent skiers to enjoy the slopes.

The US National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD) is based at Winter Park, Colorado, where there are programs for all forms of adaptive skiing and snowboarding, including ski biking. There is also an NSCD Competition Center where skiers of all ability levels can learn how to race. This includes programs for alpine skiing, snowboarding, cross-country and biathlon. Many of the skiers on the elite level programs have gone on to represent the US in competitions around the world.

Much of the content of adaptive sports programs evolved out of the desire to help disabled World War II veterans to continue living as they had before receiving their injuries; but it was only during the Vietnam War that specialists in rehabilitation realized that these wounded young men needed to remain involved in the sports they had loved, and that helping them to do this would improve their outlook on life and be beneficial to their mental health. In 1967, the National Amputee Skiers Association was set up by a group of Vietnam veterans. This developed to cover all disabled sports under the name of Disabled Sports USA (DS/USA), to which the adaptive ski programs are affiliated. The organization is now well represented nationwide, with over 60,000 people taking part in disabled sport each year.

A partnership between DS/USA and the Wounded Warrior Project providing sports programs for service men and women severely wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan has recently refocused attention on adaptive skiing. The Vermont chapter of DS/USA, Vermont adaptive Ski and Sports (VASS), has winter programs at Sugarbush Mountain resort and Pico Mountain tailored to people with physical or mental disabilities. Trained instructors and volunteers give classes on using all types adaptive skiing equipment, or act as guides for blind skiers. VASS Executive Director Erin Fernandez describes the philosophy of disabled skiing programs perfectly: that skiing programs for the able-bodied are designed to improve technique and so make skiing more enjoyable, and the same goes for adaptive skiing. Adaptive skiers do not have to settle for just being able to ski, but can aim to ski well – just as with an able-bodied skier, to achieve their own full potential in the sport, which is enormously satisfying and fulfilling.

−By Ella Moss

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