This piece is written by a member of Holland Bloorview's family advisory committee. Thank you to our FAC!
Before children, my husband and I took yearly ski vacations. We looked forward to getting away and enjoying the great outdoors. We travelled near and far. We flew and we drove. We’d go anywhere where there was snow. We lived for these vacations. We liked the sport, the sights, the food and the culture. We eventually took our ski vacations in Italy because it was cheaper to ski in Italy than to ski in Western Canada. What a great lifestyle.
Then we had kids. Screeching halt to skiing! Then we found out that one of our children had cerebral palsy. We thought our ski days were over.
Our children’s nursery school teacher told me about a sit ski that allows people with physical disabilities to get out on the hills. Maybe one door for a certain type of vacation had closed, but another door had opened.
We went to the Toronto Ski and Snowboard show and asked reps from different resorts if they had an adapted ski program. We also asked if their childcare program could care for a child with disabilities. We had to think of logistics: Could we push a wheelchair from the parking lot, hotel or gondola to the daycare centre or wherever else we needed to go? Because a wheelchair doesn’t go through snow.
The responses from the resorts were varied. We concentrated on those with a good daycare program because we knew that our kids (then three years old) would not want to spend the whole day outdoors. We found out which places would offer us a one-on-one worker for our son. Some places you have to pay for the worker and some places you don’t.
The first year, we went to Silver Star in British Columbia. The kids enjoyed the daycare while my husband and I went skiing.
The next year, we went to Sun Peaks (also in BC) and our able-bodied daughter took a ski lesson while our son (the one with CP) was happy to be pulled around in the toboggan.
We found that we were treated better by the airlines when we flew with a wheelchair than when we were travelling with a stroller. In addition to boarding the plane first, they quite often had someone meet us at the gate when we arrived at our destination to offer assistance and escort us to the next gate or baggage claim area. You, of course, have to show the airline personnel how to release the wheelchair brakes! We also didn’t put a lot of “stuff” on the chair such as bags, knapsacks etc.
When we were at Sun Peaks it was at the same time as the Canadian Association for Disabled Skiing Festival and the Para-Alpine Canadian Championships. There were skiers from all over the world with different disabilities: blind skiers, sit skiers, amputees. It was inspirational to watch these athletes compete. They didn’t let their disability stop them from enjoying the sport so we tried to learn how we could do a family ski vacation too.
The Sun Peaks adapted ski program took our son out for a couple of runs in their sit ski. A sit ski sort of looks like the sled used for dog sledding. It was an exciting and emotional experience to ski with our son for the first time because what we thought wasn’t possible was possible after all! The adapted ski people were so kind to us that we decided to continue taking family ski vacations.
On the Internet we found out that Vermont has an adapted ski program -- Vermont Adaptive at Pico Mountain. We started going to Killington Mountain for March Break. The Friendly Penguin Daycare supplies us with a one-on-one worker for our son at no extra charge. The first worker happened to be a nurse. There was also a doctor who had recently graduated working in the daycare. They don’t guarantee this type of worker but all the workers we’ve had in the past three years have been excellent. The daycare said that they will take kids up to the age of 13 even though it's aimed at children who are five and under. They will supply a worker unless the child has behavioural issues. The parent has to give any necessary medications. Our son required diapering and help with feeding. We let the daycare know in advance what kind of help we needed and they did their best to accommodate us. The more information you share with the daycare, the better your child’s experience will be. Information such as what your child likes to eat or play will make for a better vacation for all.
Vermont Adaptive has a pediatric-size sit ski. Considering how much one of these things costs, I was amazed that they had one. Since we ski at Killington, we pay a small fee for Vermont Adaptive to bring the sit ski from Pico to Killington. We book the sit ski sessions in advance through Vermont Adaptive. It costs more if you book the same program through the resort.
Vermont Adaptive sends one or two volunteers to take our son out for as many runs as he'll tolerate. We learned that our son gets cold quickly in the sit ski, even though he normally runs hot, so we put on his regular cold weather gear and then a blanket on top of everything at the beginning of the session. You need to have two people to lift the sit ski onto the chair lift. So my husband helped the Vermont Adaptive volunteer lift the chair. I don’t know if the ski lift operator would get involved. Bring your own helmet unless you don’t mind your child wearing a loaner helmet worn by many other people.
In our son’s case, the sit ski is held from behind (like a dog sled) and is controlled by an able-bodied skier. We went down the regular ski runs so you have to watch out for other skiers.
Our son is verbal but not always able to express himself well. But we know that he enjoys skiing by the smile on his face. We hope that if you dream of a family ski vacation, you too will find a way to make it happen. Good luck and happy skiing!