If you have a member of your family who is disabled or has special needs, you might be avoiding a family ski trip. Or maybe you have tried skiing with a special needs child and found it frustratingly difficult. We’re here to help change all that and turn your ski worries into a hoppy family experience for everyone. Did you know that skiing is one sport that can be accessible to everyone? Almost every ski resort offers a service called adaptive lessons for skiing or snowboarding. Whether the person has physical or cognitive disabilities, specially trained instructors can give them one-on-one individualized instruction to teach them to ski or snowboard and provide any necessary accommodating equipment.
What You Need to Know about Adaptive Lessons
Who Qualifies for Adaptive Lessons?
There are many people who might seek out adaptive lessons. Some examples of conditions that may be accommodated include the following:
- Visual impairments (blind or low vision)
- Cognitive disabilities/autism
- Traumatic brain injury
- Cerebral palsy
- Muscular dystrophy
- Ambulatory issues
- Multiple sclerosis
- Spinal cord injuries
Some resorts may restrict whom they can take for a particular activity based on weight or age. The minimum age is usually 4 or 5 years old but may be first grade level at some resorts.
What Kinds of Equipment Do I Need for Adaptive Lessons?
The resort will provide any necessary equipment, which can save you money on rentals. Sometimes a skier or rider will simply use regular equipment, but some skiers will use four-track, three-track, mono-skiing, bi-skiing, outriggers and sit-ski equipment. Be sure to ask when booking if regular skis or snowboards are included in the lesson price.
What’s Included in Adaptive Lessons?
The benefits that are included may vary per resort, so be sure to ask what is included when you book. Adapted lessons often include one-on-one instruction, all necessary equipment and lift tickets. Some resorts also offer a Companion or Buddy Pass lift ticket for a family member to be able to ski along. Some resorts such as Heavenly may include specialized equipment and discount lesson prices but do not include regular equipment (regular skis and snowboards) or lift tickets in the price, so you’ll want to know in advance if you need to reserve a lift ticket or rental.
Skiers or snowboarders can take adaptive lessons, and some resorts may offer adaptive cross-country skiing or snow shoeing as well. Instructors will teach beginners through advanced skiers with special needs, so a person who requires adaptive lessons can continue to grow as a skier or boarder throughout their lifetime. Some programs work to transition children into regular group lessons when they advance. It is all individualized. One tip we can offer is to keep some money in your pocket to tip your adaptive instructor at the end of the lesson to show your appreciation for making this possible. They work so hard with the students and often are volunteering their time to do this amazing work.
The Benefits of Adaptive Lessons
There are many benefits of taking adaptive lessons over regular group lessons. The instructors are trained to understand a disability or learning speed and style. Adaptive equipment is included, and the skier gets a lot of personal attention. The lessons are usually discounted from regular lesson costs and can save a lot of money over regular private lessons. If you have a person in your family who could benefit from adaptive lessons, these programs can be a real sanity saver. (Speaking of sanity-saving, you might find these other ski tips helpful as well). One of the best benefits of adaptive lessons is that these specialized private lessons usually cost less money than regular lessons. You can get all the extra benefits of specialized attention and equipment but actually save money!
While parents or other family members may want to follow along with an adaptive lesson, there are some reasons why you might not want to attend the lesson or the school may not want you to. Some people learn better when they are focused on just their instructor. A parent may interfere or give the skier an "out" of a challenging situation that the instructor needs to help him or her through. Also, you might want to use lesson time to get some of your own skiing done at your own pace. Depending on the student’s ability, you might be able to take your special needs skier out to ski together after the lesson so he or she can show off some new skills. Seeing the progress can be so rewarding!
Other Ski Resort Activities for People with Disabilities or Special Needs
Some resorts offer more than just ski and snowboard lessons for people with disabilities. Park City’s National Ability Center and Keystone’s/Breckenridge’s Outdoor Education Center offer other recreational, sports, camps (during holiday weeks and summer) and educational programs for people with special needs. Their programs are open to anyone with a barrier to recreation. That may be a child with autism, Down syndrome or a physical disability. In some cases (such as Park City), that may also apply to a grandparent who wants to get back outside with family. Adaptive lessons also help individuals with amputations, spinal cord injuries, visual impairments and allow participants to be active year-round. Summer programs may include ropes courses, rock climbing, canoeing, river rafting, handcycling and other challenge activities. Steamboat’s STARS program offers summer camps for kids. You can open up a whole new world of travel with these adaptive programs to increase your family bonding and the activities you share.
Aspen Snowmass offers a specialized ski and snowboard program for adults and children (ages 7 and up) who have autism. It is called Ascendigo. Whether the person is nonverbal or has Asperger’s, the program offers specialized one-on-one instruction to facilitate behaviors both on and off the mountain. It has winter lessons and camps as well as programs and overnight camps in summer.
If you are a person with special needs who is an experienced skier and you simply need a "buddy" to ski with you for the day, you can pay a minimum fee for a trained volunteer at some resorts such as Aspen Snowmass.
Just because you or your family member are in adaptive lessons doesn’t mean that you will always need them. You might progress to regular lessons or to not needing them at all. Steamboat’s STARS Adaptive Inclusion Program for children in first grade through 15 years old is designed for skiers with special needs who are ready to join regular group lessons. They will evaluate if the child needs to stay in private lessons or is able to transition to regular group lessons.
How to Book Adaptive Lessons
You’ll need to book adaptive lessons in advance. Call the adaptive lesson department as soon as you book a ski vacation to reserve a lesson. Ask questions and provide specific information about the skier’s special needs or disability so they can pair the student with the right instructor and possible equipment. You can usually find the number to call for any resort online. Here’s how to contact the adaptive lesson programs at a few popular family ski resorts:
- Vail/Beaver Creek: 970-754-5465 BCadaptiveProgram@vailresorts.com
- Breckenridge/Keystone year-round Outdoor Education Center: 800-383-2632 boec.org
- Aspen Snowmass year-round: 800-525-6200 https://challengeaspen.org
- Steamboat year-round: 888-330-1454 http://steamboatstars.com
- Park City year-round National Ability Center: 435-649-3991 discovernac.org
- Northstar: 1-800-Go-North
- Heavenly: 530-542-6904
- Kirkwood: 209-258-7754
- Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows year-round Achieve Tahoe: 530-581-4161
Researching adaptive lessons and programs is another way that you can decide which ski resort is the best one for your family. Here’s a handy guide to help you compare other features of ski resorts so you can find the right resort for all your needs and interests.
Do you have a special needs skier in your family who has benefitted from taking adaptive lessons? If you have any sanity-saving advice or tips for a better ski trip when dealing with special needs, please share it with us in the comments below.
Related: Plan Your Perfect Ski Vacation