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  5. Adaptive ski project gives people with disabilities a new chance to participate

Adaptive ski project gives people with disabilities a new chance to participate

 Jane Schmieding demonstrates a sit-ski at Madison's Winter Festival at the Capitol square on Feb. 17. 

Back in 2005, "sit-skis" for disabled cross-country skiers were expensive, uncomfortable and largely unavailable—except to a handful of Paralympic athletes. 

Today, more than 300 sitting-position skis enable a much wider group of people with lower-body limitations to participate in the popular winter sport. In addition to an adaptable, user-friendly design, these skis also come with an accessible price tag: Each sit-ski costs only about $250 to manufacture, rather than $2,500 for the old, custom-built versions for elite athletes.

And now, many of these skis reside at state and city parks, where visitors can borrow them at their leisure, or in adaptive exercise programs, which teach beginners how to sit-ski, using upper body strength alone to propel themselves. 

This burgeoning quantity of sit skis began with a big idea hatched through a partnership among Madison, Wisconsin disability rights attorney Don Becker, Jay Martin, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of mechanical engineering and an expert on assistive technologies, and a few Madison-area companies. 

Becker first approached Martin about the idea of designing a more user-friendly ski. His goal: Make 10,000 sit-skis, at a price people like his clients could afford, and distribute the skis based on need. More affordable skis also would allow communities to develop programs, and help casual users—or kids—more easily experiment with a new activity.

Martin incorporated Becker's request as a project for engineering students in his Assistive and Rehabilitation Technology design course, and the first ski was born as a wood prototype in his own garage. He says the biggest challenge in designing a more accessible sit-ski was to make it adjustable and comfortable for people of all ages and sizes. "What we tried to do was create a system that could be really quickly reconfigured to be adaptable to any musculoskeletal configuration," Martin says. "The students did a great job of taking this a long way.”

More recent versions of the ski have been lighter, more adaptable versions of the students’ base design.

Building the next 10 skis, using the students’ plans, was a three-month collaborative, community project. H&H Industries owner Chip Plummer donated the use of his sheet metal shop on weekends and helped acquire materials. Becker, sit-ski users and other community members helped put together the parts, which originally required no welding.

With 10 skis finished, Becker set a new goal of 250 additional skis, and Isthmus Engineering offered discounted materials and space, and the ski design was adapted for mass production. Yuriy Gusev, who directs the Central Cross County Ski Association—a community Olympic development program for 10 states in the central United States—consulted on the design. He also distributed sit-skis to adaptive exercise programs and public parks across the country. A high school robotics team joined the production team. It was, and continues to be, a massive community effort, Becker says. "Everyone gave up their weekends, weekend after weekend," Becker says. 

Betty Merten is among the ski's first users. She is 56 and has been in a wheelchair her entire life because of spina bifida. She also used to hate winter, a time when her manual wheelchair easily gets stuck in snow and ice. "I'd never done anything outside in the wintertime," she says. "When I was born, there were no curb cuts, there were not accessible bathrooms, and so on. I'm very used to not having things available to me." 

A member of a UW-Madison adaptive exercise class that first tested the new skis, Merten decided, before ever having tried one, to join a new sit-ski portion of the prestigious American Birkebeiner, "the Birkie," cross-country ski race in Hayward, Wisconsin, in 2009. "When I heard about it, my first thought was that it is not for me," she says. 

Yet later, Merten decided that at the very worst, she could train for the race and back out if she didn't feel ready. "Little did I know having this kind of challenge can be life changing," she says. "I fell in love with the feeling of freedom that comes with doing something like that. It gives you a feeling of connectedness, it gets you outside, and it's just fun."

Since her first Birkie, Merten has participated every year, and sit-skied in Madison when snowfall allows. She's also tried more new activities, and is proud to of her own transformation from being “very out of shape” to swimming a mile without stopping, to completing a sprint triathlon and several 5k races in the years since. "I've been asked to tell my story to new adaptive exercise students, to let them know what can happen if you are willing to try no matter what your age or physical ability," she says. "I've ended up doing a lot of things I never thought I'd be able to do."

The camaraderie of sports has led to friendships and feelings of community, too, Merten says. "It's a way for us to connect with each other and the public. If you can take a hand cycle out on a bike path somewhere, and your significant other or your kids take a regular bike, you can do that together." 

Another early sit-ski user was 62-year-old Jane Schmieding, who was just learning to cross-country ski when she developed multiple sclerosis in 1978. She now must stay active to maintain her upper-body strength. "Exercise is part of what I really feel I have to do to feel decent," she says.

When there's snow on the ground, Schmieding likes use her sit-ski, given to her by the program, at Governor Nelson State Park, alongside her husband. Like Merten, she‘s skied in the Birkie since 2009, and also takes advantage of the Madison WinterFest each February to ski on trucked-in snow around the Capitol Square. 

Schmieding also was among the group that helped assemble the first generation of sit-skis. Now, she tests new models, coordinates lessons for new sit-skiers, and volunteers and spectates at nearby adaptive ski events. "These athletes are so good," she says. "The power of those people is just amazing."

She credits the sit-ski and related adaptive skiing programs for her own expanded role in the community. "Knowing I helped assemble the 250 sit-skis that are all over the country now, being able to get involved, and meeting the people I've met: It's been really good," she says.

In addition to the first generation of sit-skis, Martin also helped design a mountain board version for four-wheeled training in warmer weather.

Previously more interested in issues like safety for assistive technology, he says he's come to appreciate the huge impact recreation can have on people's lives. "I saw how people reacted to the skis and how much everyone enjoyed this process," says Martin. "Assistive technology needs to be involved in all aspects of the human endeavor: A success on a sit-ski might lead someone to additional participation, which is one of the goals of what we do. We want to produce technology that will allow people to make independent choices, and that means they should be able to participate when they want to." 

Christie Taylor