This year’s Winter Paralympics and Commonwealth Games have put para sports centre stage, but does the positive portrayal of para-athletes at the elite level filter down to society at large? In the latest edition of OverseasMark Brierley find out how one small Canadian town is making sure it does. 

Household names like Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, and Serena Williams trip off the tongue thanks to the hours of TV coverage and acres of column inches devoted to their exploits. With schedules packed thanks to the Winter Paralympics and Commonwealth Games this year, this could soon be the case for para athletes too. Johnny Peacock, Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson, and Ellie Simmonds already fit the bill here in the UK, but are para-athletes celebrated to the same extent elsewhere in the world? Moreover, does the positive portrayal of these stars of disability sport in the media filter down to the grassroots level? The statistics paint a worrying picture.

Disabled people are twice as likely to be physically inactive (43%) as non-disabled people (21%) according to Sport England's Active Lives survey, which defines an active life as spending more than 150 minutes a week engaging in sport or physical activity. While perhaps not surprising, given the range of impairments disability can include, that might not be the only reason. Some people may be unable, rather than unwilling, to engage in active lives. What the survey doesn't cover is access to suitable facilities, which can be just as limiting in terms of participation as the disability itself.

A number of reports from government bodies and private organisations catalogue a litany of barriers stopping would-be disabled sportspeople for accessing the facilities they need to be active. From the lack of disabled changing facilities, to parking spaces, trained instructors, and specialist equipment, the list ranges from the grandiose to the infinitesimal, and that is just from trying to use the local gym or swimming baths. Just imagine then the challenges facing those wishing to head out onto the slopes of a ski field, an altogether more inhospitable environment. A bridge too far? Maybe not.

Nestled in the Elk Valley, in the Canadian territory of British Columbia, the small town of Fernie is a skier's paradise, with over 2,500 acres of trails and bowls to enjoy across the Lizard Range. Home to just 5,000 or so people, it boasts the perfect conditions for those looking to get out on the pristine slopes, but isn't perhaps where you'd expect to find some of the best facilities going for disabled skiers, all thanks the Fernie Adaptive Ski Program.

The brainchild of Grace Brulotte, the programme grew out of her desire to regain some of the freedom disability had taken away. "Growing up in a ski town and being unable to ski was unbelievably irritating… I remember going to the store, hearing people talk about powder over and over again, and wondering what on earth it was and why it was so fantastic. My winters were spent being what I like to call a book hobbit, because I so rarely had the ability to leave my house" explains Grace, whose disability means her mobility is severely limited below the neck. "After being diagnosed with a life-threatening Scoliosis curvature at 14 years old I wanted to experience anything and everything that I could before I couldn’t anymore.  When I heard about adaptive skiing, it just felt right. Once my skis touched the snow and I saw the world from a mountaintop for the first time, I knew I was hooked. Skiing gives me a freedom I have never known, freedom of movement, and freedom from the heavy labels I carry. But beyond that, I feel that skiing unites me with everyone else, becoming my common ground."

Sit ski 2

But in a town as small as Fernie there weren't the facilities Grace needed to pursue her new passion, instead she had to travel for more than one and a half hours to reach the nearest suitable ski hill with an adaptive ski programme. "I just knew I didn’t want to sit at the bottom of my home mountain looking up any longer. I was sitting at home after my first ski adventure, and the idea just came to me, “start an adaptive programme in Fernie”. Even if I was only 14 at the time, I loved the idea of this challenge, as well as being able to introduce skiing to my friends with disabilities."

And so, the Fernie Adaptive Ski Program was born. "Basically, I took out a piece of paper, wrote “sit ski program” at the top, and started jotting down ideas to start the programme. Two years later, FIRE Adaptive Snow Program was born, and I have been the president/program manager ever since. We just finished our sixth season." But what did it take to actually make the idea a reality? "We are very blessed to have an amazingly supportive community, so once the idea got out there, the community really rallied to raise funds for our first sit skis. Fernie Alpine Resort was and is very supportive of the programme, so making a deal for the programme to operate wasn’t a problem. Besides liability details, which are usually pretty daunting, our only true challenge was finding enough instructors to fill a certification course." 

And that's where the first serious barrier appeared, with too few willing applicants in the first year meaning the opening of the programme had to be pushed back for a season until enough qualified instructors could be found. "Our second attempt was successful, and we were able to open in January 2013. Finding and retaining instructors is always difficult now that our lesson demand is greater."

It's the support of these volunteers which makes the programme possible, but where to find them? Step in, Hannah Owen, an instructor with Fernie Adaptive Ski who, like many, came to the area just looking for a brilliant ski venue, but was able to find something more meaningful by volunteering as part of the programme. "I moved to Fernie because I was chasing "ultimate champagne powder" snow, having always loved skiing" explains Hannah. "My new life was a lot of fun when I arrived in Fernie but one day I met Grace. She immediately made me feel like my life in Fernie had a purpose and my professional experience collaborating with "othered" and excluded communities in London was going to be able to develop the programme. Grace was breaking all the stereotypes, and she was unmissable throughout Fernie."

Suitably inspired, the next stage was to become certified before she could start volunteering. "We spent three days with instructors learning the basics of on-ice coaching, applicable to all ski and snowboard instructors Level 1, and then tethered & sit-ski piloting, blind guidance, and a full day of ASD support. It was an emotionally and physically draining weekend, and the routes to which you just understand getting around town were dramatically challenged."

Fully certified, Hannah could now start skiing with the disabled members of the Fernie community and helping them to enjoy all the adventure and excitement of the 'ultimate champagne powder' she had come in search of. In fact, the sensation of skiing with a pilot or partner is something quite special in its own way, unique from the usually solitary experience of tearing down the slopes. 

Sit ski

"Skiing with my partner most definitely enhances the experience, but it also makes it challenging. The trust that is required from both of us is difficult to describe using words. We must become one person when we ski and that requires a special connection. I am very blessed that my current ski partner has become one of my best friends, just because of that connection we had to develop while skiing" explains Grace.

That connection makes the experience so enjoyable for both skiers, all while helping to make winter sports more inclusive for everyone in Fernie, but sadly that experience is not one that many other Canadians get the chance to experience. "At this point accessibility is a huge problem, which often gets overlooked. Inclusive activities, no matter what they are, are so important to shift society’s perspective of disability. The more we are able to do, the more we are able to feel accepted for who we are. Physical barriers, not just the absence of adaptive programs, but also the accessibility of existing programs, is a challenge still needed to be conquered. But inclusive activities as I’ve said have an immeasurable value, not just for the disability community, but for able bodied individuals as well."

But the lack of progress elsewhere is stopping Grace from further developing Fernie's adaptive offering and hopefully getting the momentum going across the country as well. "We hope to expand FIRE to include paddle boarding and mountain biking as well. I am involved with a project to build a 15km adaptive mountain biking trail in Fernie, which will be launched this summer. I also founded another society, called the Canadian Adaptive Network or CAN. CAN will be a central web based tool for everything disability in Canada. This will include information on adaptive programs, accessible travel locations, education and awareness, etc. The vision of CAN is creating a society where people with disabilities have equal opportunities to participate in activities of their choosing and be defined by who they are rather than what they can or can’t do. I’m so excited to be involved in all the projects, as I think they will make a huge impact."

With a work ethic like Grace’s, it’s easy to see CAN progressing into a huge success, just like the Fernie Adaptive Ski Program has, and Hannah agrees: “The Elk Valley is such an industrious and entrepreneurial place, and it's no surprise that it’s a produced such a formidable woman as Grace! Everyone here gets it, and Fernie is at the front of progression.”

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