An Adaptive Sports Program Makes Skiing Accessible to All

Operating at Sugarloaf, Saddleback, and New Hermon Mountain, Horizons helps participants of all abilities to ski and feel welcome.

An Adaptive Sports Program Makes Skiing Accessible to All

Operating at Sugarloaf, Saddleback, and New Hermon Mountain, Horizons helps participants of all abilities to ski and feel welcome.

By Jenny O’Connell
Photography by Andy Gagne

Issue: January/February 2022

“Skiing is calming. When I’m going fast, my stress goes away. I can just let it go,” says Ella Glover, a 13-year-old from Greene, as we ride the chairlift up the lower portion of Sugarloaf. It’s the kind of frozen, clear day that skiers and snowboarders hope for: the sky that deep, powdery blue that I’ve only ever been able to find above mountains. Glover points out carved wooden animals hidden in the trees that I would have missed if she weren’t my guide.

To her point, not once this morning has she seemed stressed. It’s her second lesson ever, and she’s making clean, measured turns and earning advanced tips from the ski school instructor. Glover is in the Horizons ski program, and I am her “ski buddy,” here to give a little extra support on the mountain, but it feels more like the reverse.

Introduced to Horizons by my sister, Caitlin O’Connell, an occupational therapist in midcoast and southern Maine and an adaptive sports volunteer, I am here to ski with athletes with various abilities and to learn about accessibility. I also want to remember what I, rusty and out of shape after years away from ski slopes, like about skiing. The best way I’ve heard it put in recent memory was when I asked Horizons skier Stella Reinhard, age 9, what she felt like going down the mountain: “In my heart, it’s scary fun.”

Ella Glover whizzes down the ski slope during a Horizons lesson with her ski buddy.

Hampden resident Colby Gott, 17, started skiing ten years ago at New Hermon Mountain, and discovered quickly that he had a knack for speed. “I like the feel of adrenaline as I’m moving down the hill, and the wind blowing in my face,” Gott says. “The fastest I’ve ever gone on skis is 50 miles per hour.” Gott, who has autism, started racing in the Special Olympics when he was 10, but outside of that program it was hard to find teams for him to race on. “Other places said no, because it is not a physical disability. And that, as a parent, was really hard to hear,” says his mother, Marilyn Gott. It’s a sentiment echoed by other parents of Horizons skiers. When she told cofounder Bruce Albiston about the situation, Albiston immediately recruited a coach and started a Horizons race team. Gott races every couple of weekends, and often takes home medals. “I would like everybody to know that you shouldn’t limit or underestimate somebody just because they have a disability,” he says.

Bruce and Annemarie Albiston were catapulted into unfamiliar territory in 2005, when Annemarie’s father, educator Andre R. Hemond, survived a massive stroke. One of the outcomes was aphasia—a common but lesser-known condition that affects speech and language. “We saw the isolation and frustration firsthand,” says Annemarie. To help others in her father’s position, she and Bruce established the Aphasia Center of Maine in 2012—like Horizons, it operates under the umbrella of the Albiston Foundation—and launched an annual retreat in Hemond’s honor. Eleven people attended the first session, which was focused solely on fun and quality of life. (When they held the 2019 retreat, there were over 120 participants.)

Inspired by the positive impact of that first retreat, the Albistons vowed to do more. A longtime skier, Bruce had volunteered for adaptive programs in both the eastern and western United States. He noticed that there wasn’t yet an accessible ski lodge in the Northeast. “We decided that we would build a lodge, and hopefully they would come,” he says. The Adaptive Outdoor Education Center (AOEC) opened its doors in Carrabassett Valley in December 2015. While it has features you might expect from a mountain lodge—sleek bamboo flooring, a grand stone fireplace, plush couches, and board games galore—it also comes equipped with a wheelchair-accessible kitchen and bathrooms and alternative gathering spaces, curtained and tucked away, for those who prefer lower sensory stimulation. Anyone with a disability, or who is part of the world of people with disabilities, is welcome as an overnight guest.

Six years later, the downhill ski program has expanded to New Hermon Mountain and Saddleback, and Horizons offers year-round opportunities for over 770 annual participants to engage in recreation, arts, education, and meaningful connection. The program nurtures collaborations with over 30 different groups, from outdoor organizations to Maine universities, and is always seeking to connect with more of the community. Two years ago, they doubled the size of the lodge. “So obviously, they’re coming,” jokes Bruce.

AOEC adapts the environment, instruction style, and equipment of its programs to match the strengths and needs of participants to support meaningful participation in sports and other activities. However, as its offerings expanded, the organization shifted away from the word “adaptive,” becoming known, simply, as Horizons. “When you think of adaptive, you often think of separating people from their peers,” says director Kayla Lee. The hallmark of Horizons programming is inclusion. Whenever possible, participants are given the option to be in a larger group, with support. “If you just provide the right support and opportunity, it’s limitless,” Lee says. “They can do anything and everything.”

This weekend on the mountain, Eddie and Shamus Roy, 15-year-old twins from South Portland who have been with Horizons since 2015, are skiing on tether. A Horizons volunteer follows behind each of them, holding long straps that allow the skiers to move independently but provide support with turning and stopping when needed. Eddie leans against his tethers to go fast. Shamus carves careful turns. As they whiz down the mountain, turning on their own and hitting small jumps, I can see the determined focus on their faces and, in their wide smiles, the depth of their joy.

The cozy AOEC lodge is designed to be inclusive, with wheelchair-accessible kitchen and bathrooms and alternative gathering spaces for those who prefer lower sensory stimulation.

The Horizons ski program at Sugarloaf is open to all abilities and ages. Many of the program’s skiers are navigating various developmental, cognitive, physical, or emotional abilities, including autism spectrum disorder, in which people are often managing varying tolerance levels for sensory input. “Our society often places the onus of what people can and cannot do on their disability, when in reality it’s often external and environmental factors that are the true barriers to participation,” Caitlin says. “Adaptive sports consider what can be done to change the environment—not the person—to make sports accessible.”

Before skiers and families arrive at the mountain, they receive a social story from Horizons, complete with photos and text to relay information about what to expect from beginning to end of the ski day. Volunteers are trained to give concrete directions, set attainable goals, and most important, pay attention to the cues their skier is giving them. Consider the sensory experiences of skiing: the bright reflection of sun on snow, the noisy bustle of the lodge, the jerks and jolts of the chairlift as it starts and stops, the cold air on your face, a boot clipped too tight. For skiers with various sensory thresholds, navigating these complex and sometimes unpredictable sensory environments adds an additional layer to the experience. “It’s about taking the time to support them in getting to whatever baseline is most comfortable and not trying to change their method of regulating or rush them into something they’re not ready for,” Caitlin says. Lily Noble-Grosjean, who, like Caitlin, found her way to volunteering at Horizons through the University of New England’s occupational therapy program, sees the volunteer’s role as “translator” to the ski instructor. “We all have a threshold we can handle,” she says. “Something that’s not a big deal for you might be for somebody else. A mitten not fitting well could be the ender of the entire day, and a kid might not be able to communicate that in a way that’s understood. I can kind of translate that information, and then that child can still engage and be a part of that group.”

The focus of the Horizons program is not on disability but on adapting the environment in order to make sports and activities accessible to people of varying developmental, cognitive, physical, and emotional abilities.

Up ahead, Bruce Albiston plays tag with Jameson Morse from Cumberland, a pint-sized speed demon on skis whose outstretched hand is mere inches from Bruce’s jacket. “Can you catch an old man?” Bruce bellows, bobbing and weaving and stopping on a dime, and for a moment I can’t tell which one is 9 and which one is 71. When I ask Bruce about his favorite part of Horizons, “It’s about the relationships,” he says. “Watching people grow. Some of these kids, you challenge them, and nobody’s ever challenged them before. We don’t put in restrictions when they come. If you want to try it, we’re going to let you try it. We want people to try.” Morse catches him right before they reach the chairlift and hoots in triumph.

Brunswick resident Shannon Landry’s son, Ethan, was born two months prematurely and had three strokes at birth. “He wasn’t projected to live, let alone be here at 17, walking and talking,” she says. Ethan has cerebral palsy and epilepsy and is partially blind. He skis with his best friend, Payne, in the winter, and sails and rock climbs in Horizons’ summer programs. “Doctors have kind of discounted our kid since day one. So, the fact that he skis and rock climbs and has other interests is just amazing,” says Shannon. “This just opens up his world so much more than I ever could have imagined.”

The Albistons would say the same. “You open the door, and you walk through and see what happens,” Bruce says about their say-yes-to-everything mentality. “We’re all over the place, and we’re in totally different places than I ever thought we would be.”

“If you just provide the right support and opportunity, it’s limitless,” says director Lee, who designs and runs year- round Horizons programming: “They can do anything and everything.”

My last ski lesson of the weekend is with John Garrett, 16, from Portland, who has skied with Horizons since year one. As we practice our turns, I reflect on what I like about skiing—the “scary fun” in my heart as I speed down the slope; time spent cupped in the hand of a mountain. But I’m also coming away with a new understanding of barriers. I’m thinking about how it’s totally in our grasp to design something like a ski resort into a place that is universally accessible to everyone, with clearer signage, online social stories, and training for ski school instructors. And I’m wondering what our world could look like if more people followed Horizons’ lead— by embracing people just as they are, and providing the support to meaningfully engage in adventure and community.

Maybe what Horizons gives us is an opportunity to witness the potential of the human spirit. To believe everyone we meet is powerful, capable. To believe the same of ourselves.

Garrett’s face lights up in a radiant smile every time we reach the bottom. As we ride the lift back up, I ask him what makes him so happy about this place. “There are champions who ski. A lot of people know how to ski. Being a skier with Horizons makes me feel part of the community,” Garrett says. “Being part of Horizons makes me feel part of the world.”

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