Since 1950 skiing has opened up to disabled people. Whatever the disability, the equipment exists to make the snow experience possible. Disabled skiers themselves have won admiration for their exploits in the Winter Para Olympics. Despite this however, basic facilities for disabled skiers are still missing from resorts.
A lack of funding means most disabled skiers in Britain are restricted to practising on their nearest artificial slope, but this hasn't stopped them excelling in international competitions: there are a lot of sensational videos of their exploits on the internet. For reasons of geography, and therefore cost, it is noticeable that in Britain it is the exploits of competitive disabled skiers that are emphasised. In France the focus is more on skiing for the handicapped as ordinary skiers because many of them live in or near skiing areas.
In the French Alps basic facilities have not kept pace with top disabled skiers who swoop like eagles on the slopes with complete mastery of their high tech equipment and then have to be lifted in and out of coaches and struggle to get to a lavatory. In theory a lot of resorts are ready to receive disabled skiers, in reality first class facilities are harder to find.
Whatever the disability, the equipment exists to make the snow experience possible . . . Despite this however, basic facilities for disabled skiers are still missing from resorts.
Jude Westerby, the administrative director of Disability Snowsports based in the Cairngorms, recalls being told at one resort in France that "everything is ok for the disabled - there's just a few stairs . . ." She told OnTheSnow.co.uk that in one place they had to wheel a skier half a mile to get to a restaurant where we could get the chair in. She explains, "It is not just the inconvenience, it is the negative experience that takes away from the success and exhilaration on the slopes."Jude's conclusion is to "make very sure of the facilities before booking if you are disabled. The local comités de tourisme will give you accurate information about any particular resort in France." She added they work with travel company, Crystal Ski a lot and that makes it all a lot easier as they are used to special requirements.
Skiing for the disabled is broadly divided into sitting and standing. Those that have upper body autonomy, once seated can ski downhill or cross-country like anybody else, indeed better than many, especially if they use a racing Sitski. Where both the upper and lower body is affected skiing in tandem is possible. There are special guidance drills for partially sighted and mentally impaired skiers who can be accompanied by an able bodied skier down the slopes and in competitions.
Equipment is available for all types of disability and technical progress has been phenomenal.
In the French Alps instructors must hold the Certificat de Qualification Handisports Ski Alpin. Instructors are expected to have a thorough knowledge of all the different equipment suitable for different types of disability as well the particular difficulties of disabled skiers. Note that a disabled skier is not excused from sticking to the rules of good behaviour on the slopes.
Equipment is available for all types of disability and technical progress has been phenomenal. Ski lifts are available and adapted so disabled skiers can use them without too much difficulty. Equipment supplier Spokes 'N Motion have a European office in Toulouse. The original business is in Denver in the United States where disabled skiing is advanced compared with Europe. They provide all sorts of kit for the disabled skier as well as for other sports. French firm Tessier founded by engineer and ski enthusiast Pierre Tessier in 1997 is a world leader in certain types of equipment and they have even designed a system for evacuating handicapped skiers from ski lifts in case of difficulty.
Yohann Nourdin has recently set up Handi Val d'Abondance, an association for disabled skiers and other disabled sports enthusiasts, based in Châtel. The motto of the association is "Sitting or standing we do it all". OnTheSnow.co.uk asked Yohann some questions:
What's involved in setting up disabled ski facilities? "To launch a project like this requires a big preparatory effort: you have to find professional sports teachers; give disabled skiers the opportunity to practice on their own; get them the equipment they need; work with the people who run the ski lifts in the resorts to get them adapted; train the parents through whom the children can become independent on the slopes; and finally develop relations with the communes and tourist offices to find out what suitable accommodation exists (more or less none actually!). A lot of good will is required."
How did you get involved in disabled skiing? "I am a winter sports instructor and one day on the slopes I met a disabled skier who asked my advice. We became friends and he became a Para Olympic champion and now he is a patron of the association along with André Favre another Para Olympic medal winner. That is how I got involved."
Some specialists in disabled skiing say that there is a lot to be done in France to make skiing genuinely accessible to the handicapped. Do you accept that criticism? "Yes, we have now reached a point where the equipment manufacturers have performed miracles and disabled skiers perform to a very high standard. On the other hand there is a whole lot of down-to-earth logistics to put in place like proper access to hotels and restaurants, lavatories, and accessible transport. Here at Châtel the slopes are suitable for the disabled. We even have five different types of chairs for carrying disabled skiers in the ski lifts. We shall soon have a new development with 125 units equipped to receive disabled people, but yes there remains a lot to be done. All other considerations apart, it is good business because every disabled skier is usually accompanied by two or three others."
All Yohann's hard work seems worthwhile when you read a comment by one of his disabled skiers on the net: "In Haute Savoie I met a ski instructor at Châtel who enabled me to have my first experience of winter sports skiing in tandem. What happiness to be able to go up the mountain and to able to ski. Give it a try, here is their address www.ecole skiacademy.com."
There is now legislation in France - the Loi 2015 - which requires all establishments to provide access and toilet facilities for the disabled by the year 2015. Yohann Nourdin says, "2015 will be on us in no time and it remains to be seen if there is the money available to do the work."
Spokes 'N Motion: in French and English http://www.spokesnmotion.com/contact/index.asp
Tessier: in French and English http://www.dualski.com/en/gamme-complete/
British Ski Club for the Disabled: http://www.bscd.org.uk/centers.htm has a network of local representatives.
Disability Snowsport: http://www.disabilitysnowsport.org.uk/contact