Learn to adapt

Jan Hess

For 15 years, volunteer Jan Hess has been teaching disabled people to ski through Disabled Sports USA Far West at Alpine Meadows, an adaptive ski school for people with disabilities. He says anyone, no matter their disability, can ski. Those interested in taking a lesson or volunteering can contact the program at (530) 581-4161.

What’s the Disabled Sports program about?

We have downhill skiing, snowboarding, snow sports. We do four-wheel drive adventures, water skiing, golf—any kind of sport you can think of, we can adapt it to people with disabilities.

So it’s a year-round program?

Oh, yeah. Our chapter was the one who started the Disabled Sports in 1967.

What do you do with them?

I’m down to doing the snow sports. I used to be one of the clinicians setting up other programs similar to ours. I was sent all over the country, been to Korea a couple times. We are very fortunate here because we’ve been in business so long. I hate to call it a business, but we have a lot of expertise.

What do you teach?

Boy, every kind of skiing and snowboarding. We have sit-down pieces of equipment for paraplegics and quadriplegics, we call them mono skis. We teach the blind, children and adults with developmental disabilities, amputees—anybody can ski with us.

How do you adapt the sports for the disabled?

We’ll do an assessment. We look at the student. I like to think I look at their strengths, and I exploit them. If they have balance, boy, we’re doing great. Really anybody can ski. … At this point, I’m behind them with tether lines so they don’t go too fast, or just to be there for safety. All of the students go out with an instructor and assistant. So it’s a private lesson… We’re all volunteers, mostly. We have five or six paid instructors, but there are 80-100 volunteers from all over California and Nevada. It’s amazing. We train probably 120 new volunteers each year.

How did you get involved?

I was uncomfortable around people with disabilities because I’d never had experience with them. I started out as an assistant, and pretty soon, I was having so much fun, they had to hire me.

What have you learned from working with the disabled?

Oh, boy, treat everybody as an individual. You can’t pigeonhole people by a disability. Everyone has strengths. I feel it puts my life back into perspective. I might get up and have to walk through six inches of snow to get to my car, then I see someone struggling in a wheelchair and think, “Boy, my life is not too bad.” A lot of people look at people with disabilities, and they have pity, but that’s not the way the disabled community would like to be viewed. This is part of their life; it’s just something that happened. Treat everybody with respect. They may not need your help.

Is there a common thread you’ve noticed among the students?

When they get there, they don’t really know what they can do. When I get done with them, they find they can do something they didn’t know they could before. They come in a little shy or timid. I take them out and show them this is fun, fast and exciting. They might not be able to get up on top of a mountain in a wheelchair, but if they’re on a monoski, I can probably take them up there. If I can show them that they can ski or snowboard or snowshoe, they might find something else in their life they didn’t know they could do.