Is Northwest Colorado ahead of the curve in providing opportunities to those with disabilities?

Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports provides programming and equipment to athletes with physical and cognitive disabilities.
Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports/Courtesy

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Through more than 20 years in the field, Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports — or STARS — Program Director Ron Southworth has seen massive changes made to accommodate people with disabilities. Everything from education systems to building codes has been altered to allow physically or cognitively impaired individuals to go about their day much as an able-bodied person would. 

Technology and equipment have improved, and people with disabilities have been guided from the shadows of society to the forefront thanks to massive events like the Paralympics and Special Olympics. With that, some of the stigma around Down syndrome, wheelchairs or missing limbs has been stripped away, allowing those who face physical and cognitive challenges to feel less judged and more accepted. 

STARS has provided people with disabilities with athletic opportunities for more than a decade and isn’t alone in its efforts, as there are many similar nonprofits or programs throughout the country, including the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park. 

Southworth was introduced to the world of adaptive skiing when his daughter lost a leg due to cancer. She learned to ski at Winter Park, and Southworth was invited to a family ski day. That started his involvement with the National Sports Center for the Disabled, which then led him to STARS.

“A lot of those people (who lost a limb due to traumatic circumstances), they have to look at their lives differently,” Southworth said. “We get to show them that their life isn’t over. They can still get out and ski and ride a bike and kayak and ride horses and things like this. It might be different, but they can still do it.”

It’s important to give those with impairments athletic opportunities because it shows them their world doesn’t necessarily have to be smaller or limited. It also gives them a way to stay fit, which could be more difficult for some people with disabilities. 

STARS offers year-round camps, guide programs and lessons, and provides equipment. In the winter, the nonprofit teaches skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing and more. In the summer, there are even more options ranging from horseback riding and biking to archery and water skiing.

Altering sports and equipment to allow someone with a missing limb or physical impairment is nothing new. The concept has been around for years. 

What is ableism?

Ableism is discrimination in favor of able-bodied people. It can take many forms, ranging from jokes to noncompliance with Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines.

The first Paralympic Games were in July 1948 but were called the Stoke Mandeville Games. 

With the Paralympics now televised and becoming a more popular and publicized event, it’s altering the perception of athletes with disabilities. 

According to information from the International Paralympic Committee, one in three adults in the U.K. reported changing their attitude toward people with impairments after the 2012 London Summer Games. 

“I think our elite athletes are getting seen, and that stigma is breaking down,” said Kim Easton, CEO of the National Sports Center for the Disabled. “But I think your average individual living with disabilities, there’s still a lot of outreach that needs to be done.”


Not enough support

Steamboat Springs skier Paige VanArsdale has had some trouble getting the training she desires and that fits her needs. The Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs student has to go out of her way and work a little bit harder to create her own curriculum when it comes to coaching and training. Thankfully, growing up in Steamboat Springs, she never saw skiing or swimming as something she couldn’t do, even if it would be more difficult for her.

She hopes other kids with disabilities, regardless of where they live, know they can pursue whatever sport they want.

“Don’t give up on yourself,” she said. “Just let people know that they can do it, even though it’s hard for us. People who have disabilities, and people who aren’t able-bodied, can prove to able-bodied athletes and coaches that we can do it.”

VanArsdale was diagnosed with cerebral palsy before she was 2, and in 2017, she was diagnosed with bipolar depression. Both conditions have made skiing more challenging for her, but she continues to compete and seek coaching. While her physical disability was greatly aided by a surgery she had in middle school, VanArsdale still takes a lot longer to learn things than most other kids. Coaches aren’t typically trained to accommodate athletes with disabilities like hers. 

“There probably aren’t enough coaches in our community who are adapted to those with physical disabilities,” said Melissa VanArsdale, Paige’s mom. “For recreational purposes, STARS is great to build the groundwork, a foundation. But once you get beyond that, there may not be the coaching for that.”

Paige VanArsdale hopes to become the first skier from Steamboat Springs to be named to the U.S. Paralympic team.
John F. Russell

Paige VanArsdale worked with STARS for a few years, but her mother said she soon reached a plateau. Currently, she trains with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club when she can, but when she goes to competitions, a Winter Sports Club coach doesn’t go with her.

Still, they’ve done a lot to work with Paige and do what they can to help her reach her personal training goals, according to Melissa.

Paige has been the driving force behind getting the training she needs, according to her mother. 

Ahead of events in Park City, Utah, Paige reached out to seasoned adaptive coaches there and asked them to be her official coach at competitions. They’ve obliged, and she’s built relationships with a few coaches out of Park City. 

Since there isn’t closer access to coaches who are equipped to train adaptive athletes, Paige doesn’t receive consistent coaching, especially after getting diagnosed with bipolar depression. 

“They might be putting a limit to what you can do, instead of trying to push you,” Melissa said. “Even though there’s the support of coaches, sometimes, I think they’re afraid to push her, to encourage her. Like, maybe they think it’s safer not to instead of helping her reach her goals.”

Still falling short

About 20% of Coloradans have a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s more than 1 million people.

Easton cited the CDC saying that about 53% of them are active in some way, while 47% don’t get any aerobic exercise. That would mean more than 500,000 people in Colorado have a disability and are active, and therefore could benefit from the programming at the National Sports Center for the Disabled.

In comparison, the center serves about 4,000 people per year. That’s a minuscule percentage of people living with disabilities. 

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“We’re barely even getting connected with the 53% that are already active, not to mention the 47% that aren’t active in any way,” Easton said. “There’s still large numbers of people to be served and to get into an active lifestyle.”

Outreach and spreading awareness of programs, like those at STARS and the National Sports Center for the Disabled, are the next steps in reaching more people with disabilities and showing them they have the opportunity to be active in so many more ways. 

For the people who are aware of the opportunities out there, it can be a burden to fund them. 

Adaptive equipment is expensive, and it probably always will be since it’s unlikely that hand-pedaled bikes or monoskis will ever be mass produced. Not only is the equipment expensive, but so is hiring people who are qualified to work with people with impairments. 

The program fees at the National Sports Center for the Disabled cover only 16% of the cost to run the programs. The rest of the 84% is funded in other ways. 

“That’s where organizations like the National Sports Center for the Disabled and STARS, the partnerships we have with the mountain and the community are critical,” Easton said. “If we didn’t exist, people living with disabilities would not have access.”

Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports provides programming and equipment to athletes with physical and cognitive disabilities.
Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports/Courtesy

In Steamboat, STARS relies on major fundraisers, such as Biking the Boat and the Mountain Challenge, and a relationship with Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. COVID-19 has impacted fundraising efforts with Biking the Boat moving to a virtual format.

Paige’s training is funded by the Challenged Athlete Foundation, which provides programming and scholarships to athletes facing physical challenges. 

In the past few years, STARS has joined forces with similar programs, and they have started communicating with one another. Through frequent meetings, which have been virtual lately, programs can discuss what works for them, ask questions and consider what more can be done. 

“We’re now doing monthly meetings,” Easton said. “And really trying to clarify and elevate the message of rethinking ability, redefining what’s possible to create healthier, equitable communities by having a more cohesive message as an industry.”

To reach Shelby Reardon, call 970-871-4253, email or follow her on Twitter @ByShelbyReardon.

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