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Thursday, January 3, 2008

Adaptive Skiing and Sports

My son Tom and I are new to alpine skiing. After he "retired" from hockey last year we were interested in taking up a new sport--something that was physically taxing, fun, and, from my viewpoint, would take him far away from his Xbox. When my niece, who works as a program co-ordinator for Vermont Adaptive, invited us up last winter we jumped at the chance. It turned out my son was a natural on skis. I was not so gifted and struggled for a variety of reasons foremost among them finding the correct sit ski (for a person with a high level of injury, t-3, the correct gear is very important).

This ski season has gone much better. Using a dual sit ski as opposed to a mono ski that is common I expect (hope) to be independent by the end of the season. I love the freedom and sensation of skiing. Being outside in the cold, the views from the summit, and seeing my son speeding by me are all wonderful. But I wonder what other non-disabled people really think about my efforts. In Vermont I rarely get that "Oh my gosh, you are such an inspiration" comment that I detest. Yet I remain concerned about how I am perceived. Do others understand that I am like any other parent who simply wants to spend time with their kid? This question leads me to wonder about the value of adaptive sports. Here I am not referring to events such as the Para-Olympics where the athletes are young, gifted, and driven. These men and women are professionals and should be perceived as such.

I am your typical weekend warrior--nothing more and nothing less. I am skiing to have fun like the vast majority of people. But I am not like others. I use and wheelchair and sit ski. Do people look beyond my wheelchair and sit ski and see me for who I am? I would like to think so yet I am not sure this is the case. When you add in the high cost of skiing my concerns grow exponentially. What is the point of having adaptive sport programs if 70% of disabled people are unemployed? Do not misconstrue what I am trying to get at: adaptive sport programs are great and have a place in society. It is just that on our drive back home I was pre-occupied with the gross economic and social inequities that disabled people encounter on a daily basis. Social stigma and the lack of economic independence prevent far too many disabled people from leaving their home and, for some, visiting a ski area is a pipe dream. As we approached home I broached this issue with my son who has an innate ability to reduce complex issues to their most common denominator. He remarked that I could not change the world in one weekend and that I should really be thinking about ways to improve my form so that I could keep up with him. He went on to note that what made people think the most in his estimation was little a little sign my niece put on my wheelchair while I was skiing. It stated: "Gone Skiing". He told me that as people trudged by, many stopped, thought a second or two and laughed. This, he thought, was an indication that people questioned their preconceived notions about "dudes that use a wheelchair" and that I should just enjoy myself. I hope my son is correct and will work on not only my form but on advances the rights of disabled people.