People With Disabilities Find Independence Through Skiing

It was Gilbert’s idea to start securing herself to the chairlift as a way to be more independent. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
It was Gilbert’s idea to start securing herself to the chairlift as a way to be more independent. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

For 18 years, ORCA has been teaching people with disabilities how to ski at Juneau’s Eaglecrest Ski Area. Its Adaptive Ski and Snowboard program is helping people discover their own potential.

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When Jessica Gilbert skis, she wears a harness that gets clipped to the chairlift, a precaution in case she has a seizure. The job of securing Gilbert is usually one for her ski partner, an ORCA staff member or volunteer. On this day, the 30-year-old is practicing how to do it herself.

“I felt like I wanted to do it for independence,” she says.

Gilbert is autistic. She’s been skiing with ORCA for 15 years and continues to push herself to learn new skills.

Jessica Gilbert, 30, has been skiing with ORCA for 15 years and continues to push herself to learn new skills. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
Jessica Gilbert, 30, has been skiing with ORCA for 15 years and continues to push herself to learn new skills. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

ORCA Team Leader Lindsay Hallvik says helping Gilbert with the harness was just part of the routine, but Gilbert wanted to own her ski experience.

“She asked us last year actually, ‘Hey, is there a way that I could do this by myself?’ And we actually were unsure at the time,” Hallvik says.

After talking with Eaglecrest ski patrol and other ski areas down south, Hallvik says ORCA came up with a system and felt comfortable with Gilbert doing it herself.

“Once you go through the research, go through the investigation and we practiced it ourselves, then I know it’s all set up ready to go for her,” Hallvik says.

Brainstorming solutions for how to make skiing enjoyable for everyone is part of what Hallvik loves about her job. ORCA works with a wide range of clients – people with Down syndrome, autism, people who’ve lost a limb or have spinal cord injuries. Ages have ranged from 4 to 82.

“Everyone comes in with a different life story, a different disability, so it’s fun for us to problem solve all the time, like ‘This didn’t work, but that’s going to work. Maybe next time we can try this, and this will make them even more successful,’” Hallvik says.

ORCA stands for Outdoor Recreation and Community Access and is part of the organizationSoutheast Alaska Independent Living. Its adaptive ski and snowboard program relies on volunteers who go through training. This season, there are 40. Hallvik says having patience is key.

“We don’t have a formula for working with people with disabilities. It’s never going to be the same lesson, even with the same person. It’s a different day, different conditions, they’re in a different space. And so we just really advocate, ‘Do some investigation, like, how are you feeling this morning? Where are you at?’ And you can meet them there,” Hallvik says.

ORCA Program Director Tristan Knutson-Lombardo and Gilbert wait on the Porcupine chairlift line. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
ORCA Program Director Tristan Knutson-Lombardo and Gilbert wait on the Porcupine chairlift line. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

On this day, Gilbert is having a great time.

“My best run was when I held my hands up like I’m driving a car and I was making turns really fast,” Gilbert says.

She says that helps her balance. Besides adaptive skiing, Gilbert participates in other ORCA programs as well.

“I do kayaking, snowshoeing, biking, hiking, different activities like that,” she says.

If it wasn’t for ORCA, Gilbert says her life would be drastically different. She’d likely spend more time at home surrounded by caregivers and family. At ORCA programs, Gilbert is with friends.

“It’s really good for me because I can get out and socialize,” Gilbert says.

And that’s really the point. Program Director Tristan Knutson-Lombardo says ORCA tries to dismantle the barriers people with disabilities face.

“So I think it’s empowering and I think it’s also just fun. It doesn’t have to be all work and serious. It’s just fun to get out,” he says.

At the top of Porcupine chairlift, Gilbert and Knutson-Lombardo get off by counting, “One, two, three, lift off.”

They decide which way they’ll go and who’s leading.

“All right, my turn,” says Knutson-Lombardo. “Let’s do it.”

“Alrighty,” says Gilbert.

And off they go.

Sunday is Learn to Adapt Day at Eaglecrest. ORCA staff will be doing demonstrations of adaptive ski and snowboard equipment from 10-2, and everyone is invited to try them out for free.