Disability and inclusion: can we bring more diversity to snowsports?

Throughout October we’ve been exploring the issue of diversity in the outdoor and snowsports industry and asking what more can be done to create a more meaningful and inclusive space.

We caught up with adaptive snowboarders Owen Pick and Darren Swift to ask their thoughts on the snow industry, how it affects them and others with disabilities, and whether they think it’s limiting the number of people hitting the slopes.

Can you tell us a little about your experience on the mountain?

DARREN SWIFT: Attitudes and access to the mountains has improved dramatically over the years. I can remember when me and a group of other disabled veterans first went sit-skiing in Austria some 25 years ago, being told that they will not slow or stop the lift to allow us to get on and that “if we cannot get on at normal speed then we should not be on the mountain” Fortunately this is just about unheard of nowadays and would be totally unacceptable in many resorts.

Europe and the Alps are generally seen to be playing catch up when it comes to access for people with disabilities and adaptive snowsport, however many resorts are getting there, with more hotels and lift systems being modified or built with disabled people in mind.

The US and Canada have always been at the forefront of all mountain inclusive access, resorts like Winter Park and Breckenridge, Colorado are good examples of where Europe could aspire to.

So, how do we get more disabled people on snow?

DARREN SWIFT: Firstly, the cost of participating in any snowsport is so prohibitive for so many people that perhaps would like to but simply cannot afford to do so.

Within disabled or adaptive snowsports there are a plethora of adaptive systems and methods encompassing just about all of the disciplines that able-bods do.

Seeing more images and video of adaptive snowsports in the media would be a good start.

The Winter Paralympics has helped enormously with this but even this only shows a few of the ways in which people with disabilities can participate in snowsports.

OWEN PICK: Give the guys and girls that are already doing it a platform to showcase their ability — getting their name out there — so that we can prove and show what’s possible.

Owen Pick competing for GB

What advice would you give to an aspiring adaptive athlete? How can they get into the sport in the UK?

OWEN PICK: My advice would be do it! Choose what you want to do, set yourself a goal, and do not stop even if there are obstacles that get in your way.

Do you feel there is enough support or initiatives to encourage young adaptive athletes?

DARREN SWIFT: For myself it was my participation with the Armed Forces Para-Snowsport Team that helped enable me to become a Para-Athlete Snowboarder. Prior to that, BLESMA (The Limbless Veterans) and The Not Forgotten Association had inspired me to firstly ski-bob — like a bike with skis not wheels — then sit-ski and then onto snowboarding. For those not in the veteran community there are programmes and organisations that can help facilitate those that have aspirations to maybe get to the Winter Paralympics or indeed compete at any level.

I have been pretty impressed with our own indoor snow domes here in the UK, they have taken into account inclusivity and deserve recognition for it. It’s in these places that we can introduce people with disabilities to the idea of participating in snowsport. The ‘have a go’ events often laid on by these centres really do inspire, generate interest, and ultimately get people involved in something that they perhaps thought was beyond their capabilities. All in a relatively safe and accessible environment perhaps and hopefully prior to venturing out into the mountains for the first time.

Darren Swift competing

Some of our more high-profile Winter Olympic athletes and coaches run ski/snowboard schools and programmes both at snow domes and away in resorts. Being tutored by someone who has been there and done it is always a great way to inspire the young, older, able-bodied, or disabled.

There is always more to be done to support anyone who aspires to be a parasnowsport-athlete old or young. Identifying those that show an interest or passion for snowsports has got to be a priority. Efforts right across the education spectrum should be encouraged; incentives for schools and colleges should be worked on by those across the sport to allow any child with any disability to develop any skills that might enable them to realise their potential as a Para-Athlete.

OWEN PICK: There’s good support already, but it could be way way better. But by using guys like myself as a positive image and inspiration, we are proving it’s possible.

What barriers have you had to overcome to represent GB?

DARREN SWIFT: The biggest barrier for anyone with a disability in competition is the categorisation process. The IPC are reassessing the way in which people are categorised and there maybe some changes in the future but for me it was not an altogether pleasant experience. I think it would be fair to say that on the whole my journey towards the Paralympics was a great adventure. I managed to circumnavigate the globe in snowboarding events, met some amazing people and competed at nearly the highest level. I did however, come up against a few barriers and setbacks.

OWEN PICK: It’s hard to talk about. It’s not easy, it’s tough, but that’s what I liked about it. It was a massive challenge in most ways, but that’s also what kept me mega focused throughout; if you truly want it you’ll make it happen.

What could be done by manufacturers to better help adaptive athletes?

OWEN PICK: I think if they could look at us on the same level as normal guys with no injuries and support us in the same way and take us away for filming trips with the teams that we are sponsored by, that would be amazing. Just treat us as the same.

DARREN SWIFT: This is one of those chicken and egg scenarios.

The infrastructure and attitudes towards disability in the snowsports environment have and are changing and the same goes for the adaptive equipment being used and developed. Cost is once again a prohibitive issue in much the same way as wheelchairs and prosthetics can often cost an astonishing amount. This is further exacerbated when it comes to disabilities that have not so far been catered for. In regards to my own case, I have had to develop a series of prototype bindings that enable me to snowboard as there was nothing on the market and no manufacturer willing to design and build for a market of one. I have been doing this for 14 years now and only just getting to the stage where we might see a final design and product.

Perhaps what is needed is some sort of funding that will allow for the design and build of equipment, even if it might just be a one off’ Any takers?

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

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