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Supporting people with a disability on the snow 

By Anita Coia

Posted Thursday 23 August 2018

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One of the lovely characteristics of the people who visit Hotham is their passion for the place, and their resulting enthusiasm to share it with everyone.

We’re very proud that this enthusiasm extends to people with a disability, thanks to Disabled Wintersport Australia’s resort services program, which is supported by Mt Hotham Resort Management Board and Mount Hotham Ski Company.

Founders of adaptive snowsports in Australia

Established in 1978 by Ron Finneran OAM and Canadian ski instructor Bruce Abel, Disabled Wintersport Australia (DWA) started life as the Australian Disabled Skiers Federation and has been involved in promoting and transforming participation by people with a disability in wintersports ever since. In fact, Ron Finneran was Australia’s first (unofficial) winter Paralympian, participating in the very first Paralympic Winter Games held in Sweden in 1976.

From modest beginnings in NSW, DWA is now the national sporting organisation (NSO) body responsible for adaptive winter sports in Australia, and every year assists thousands of people with disabilities to participate in winter sports.

Resort Services Program

The DWA resort services program itself was established very recently, in 2014, and at Hotham this year participation has doubled in terms of the numbers of DWA members taking advantage of the wonderful opportunity to take to the slopes in a fully supported way.

One of the key attractions of the Hotham resort services program is that it caters for a range of preferences and abilities, and most importantly allows DWA members to enjoy a snow trip with their family and friends.

In some cases, DWA clients are people who enjoyed snowsports prior to an event that altered their ability to do it, so they are thrilled to return to the slopes and regain the joy of participating.

“It’s so fulfilling to help a client get on the slopes and experience the sensations that everyone enjoys about the snow – the excitement of the sport, the beauty of the surroundings, the fun of doing it all with people we love,” says Phil Knight, Mt Hotham Resort Services Coordinator for DWA. 

“Obviously the safety and comfort of our clients is paramount, but the equipment is now very sophisticated and caters for a wide range of clients. With our well-trained local volunteer guides, who are also passionate about the snow, we ensure our clients have an amazing experience.”

Shared, amazing alpine experience

This fits perfectly into Hotham’s vision of providing a ‘shared, amazing alpine experience’ for all our visitors.

Mt Hotham Resort Management Board and Mount Hotham Ski Company provide support for the program including support for visiting volunteer guides. The Resort Management Board also introduced wheelchair-accessible buses for the free Village shuttle in 2018, which is already having a huge impact on our wheelchair-using visitors. The Ski Co provides additional support through collaboration with both chairlift teams and Ski and Ride School. 

However, the program wouldn’t be possible without the many committed volunteer guides who are trained on Hotham’s slopes to assist DWA’s clients, who could be facing a wide range of challenges from vision impairment, intellectual disability or serious illness through to acquired brain injury, paraplegia and quadriplegia.

As a result, the support that volunteers provide can include chairlift loading / unloading, tethering of sit skis, “bucketing” for members in sit-skis who require full support, or through sections of more difficult terrain for members who need less support, and audible communication for vision impaired DWA members – on either skis or snowboard.

The volunteers don’t provide formal instruction but Hotham’s Ski and Ride School has instructors specially trained to provide adaptive snowsports lessons, and Phil Knight provides regular opportunities for visiting guides and instructors to reinforce their training during the season.

It’s a team effort

DWA member Rhys Gray recently visited Hotham and was blown away by the support offered by Hotham to him. Rhys uses a wheelchair but was able to navigate the resort with relatively few issues, thanks to support from DWA, the Resort Management Board, the team at Arlberg Hotham and the Mt Hotham Ski Company team at the Big D. 

As a result, he and his whole family were able to share the full Hotham experience together, from learning to ski, to using the bus system to do all the things many of us do – dropping the kids off at ski school, stopping for lunch at Frankie’s, returning to their accommodation at the end of the day to unwind, then the inevitable de-snowing of the car at the end of the trip. 

While the weather was not cooperative for their first day of their visit, Rhys and his family had a perfect second day. He and his daughters headed to the Summit run to practice their newfound skills together, with Rhys in a Bi-unique ski (seated ski equipment with two skis on the base). 

After Rhys had a lesson from Hotham Ski and Ride School, Phil helped him learn how to independently load and unload on the chairlift, and DWA volunteers Mike Brinkman and the Mt Hotham RMB’s CEO Jon Hutchins assisted by ‘shadowing’ Rhys to ensure he had the space to ski safely. Para-athlete Jason Sauer also joined the group and demonstrated to Rhys the techniques that the Ski and Ride School adaptive instructor taught him, enabling Rhys to improve his ability on the runs. 

“All in all, the experience was a great week end due to the staff of the DWA team as the Arlberg and the teams that work Hotham itself. Everyone was more than happy to lend a hand which makes all the difference,” says Rhys. “We are looking forward to getting back up there very soon.”

Aiming for inclusion

Jasmine, seven years old and a new DWA member, lives on the Gold Coast but visits Hotham every year. She lives with a very rare disorder, Williams Syndrome, which means that she cannot produce elastin. It affects all major organs and muscles and consequently, Jasmine has global developmental delay with cardiac, physical and intellectual impacts and autism. However she is a happy little girl who is keen to try everything and loves holidaying in the snow. 

This year Jasmine joined DWA and was fitted with a child’s ‘Bi-Unique’ sit ski for a safe and exhilarating ride down the mountain. The key for her family was giving Jasmine the opportunity to ski with her family for the first time, and she was able to do this with DWA support. She was very excited to share her first downhill skiing experience with her whole family at Mt Hotham; mum and dad Jacqui and Marty, grandparents Wendy and Tony, and particularly her sister Lily, aged 6 and brother Noah, 4 years old, a first timer on the mountain, along with her uncle Rob and aunty Carissa.

“To see Jasmine punching the air and giving high fives and thumbs up whilst shrieking with glee, and shouting “I won, I won” and “let’s go skiing” made the whole thing a great and worthwhile adventure, thanks to Phil Knight and his team,” said Wendy, Jasmine’s grandmother.

Without Hotham DWA’s assistance, Jasmine’s holiday would continue to be restricted to snow play and staying in the house in Dinner Plain. But Jasmine’s family really wanted to give Jasmine the opportunity to experience the snowfields the way her family does and to be included. Whether she skied was not as important as giving Jasmine an opportunity.

“Jasmine keeps saying how happy she is and she wants to ski with her friend Phil!” says Wendy. “Thanks to the support and actions of Phil and his fantastic team of volunteers, she is as included as everyone else.”

Community spirit

Awareness of DWA’s activities at Hotham is high, thanks to the tireless efforts of Phil, the Hotham resort services coordinator who lives on the mountain during the season and works hard to establish relationships with the locals. 

When Dinner Plain Primary School student Bridget found $5, she immediately thought of DWA and the fact that the organisation currently operates out of a donated shipping container at the base of the Summit chairlift. Her letter read “Dear Mr Knight, I am donating this five dollars for DWA. I hope this can make a change and help towards improving the building. The Falls Creek building is so much bigger than ours, ours is just a shipping crate, I want [to] make a change and help to make it bigger and better.”

So next time you see a DWA jacket on the slopes, be sure to give them a wave and lots of encouragement!

For more great stories about what's happening around Hotham, sign up to the weekly Hotham Herald here.

To see Jasmine punching the air and giving high fives and thumbs up whilst shrieking with glee, and shouting “I won, I won” and “let’s go skiing” made the whole thing a great and worthwhile adventure

Wendy, Jasmine's grandmother

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