Snow-sports holidays for people with disabilities are booming

For those with a ski break booked anywhere in Europe in the coming weeks, the most vexing issue is likely to be whether or not any snow will have arrived on the slopes by the time you do. But for a significant number of British skiers, what determines the quality of their experience has little to do with the weather.

Skiers with disabilities tend only to make the news when competing in high-profile events, most notably the Paralympic Games every four years. But, for all the achievements of the athletes involved, such recognition represents merely the tip of the iceberg for a growing band of Britain's adaptive skiers, the term by which skiers with disabilities are known.

According to Disability Snowsports UK (DSUK), a charity and the leading training provider for adaptive skiers, the UK is home to around 2,000 active enthusiasts. The majority participate using ski-mounted chairs, known as "sit skis", and with the aid of "outriggers", short poles with small skis attached to the bottom.

Served by a rising number of dedicated instructors, DSUK claims bookings are at an all-time high, with specialist venues continuing to open around the country. The situation in Europe, however, is somewhat different. "Continental resorts are very poor in terms of provision," explains Gary Murray, DSUK's head of fundraising and development. "A lack of facilities means adaptive skiers will often have to pay for one-on-one instruction, which on a week-long holiday might add as much as £600 to the cost of their break." That is if you can find an adequate instructor.

"In France," says Mr Murray, "once an instructor has qualified through the French instructors' governing body (the Ecole du Ski Francais), they are, theoretically, qualified to teach adaptive skiers, irrespective of the disability. In Britain, all instructors must first be accredited by the British Association of Snowsports Instructors, then take an additional 10-day course. As no two skiers are the same, there's a lot to learn in terms of the medical background. A lot of resorts in Europe, for example, would not view somebody with cerebral palsy as being able to ski. That's a view we just don't share in the UK."

Despite Europe's poor track record there are, Mr Murray points out, exceptions. "La Plagne [in France] has built a reputation for accommodating skiers with spinal injuries," he says. "While Villars, in Switzerland, has a dedicated adaptive ski school."

By far the most popular choice for adaptive skiers, however, are American destinations where, by law, any resort built on government land is obliged to provide adaptive facilities equal to those for able-bodied skiers. America's lucrative adaptive sector has its origins in the Vietnam War, after which the US government began looking for activities for servicemen who had lost limbs.

For the long-term, DSUK has ambitious plans. "Ultimately," says Mr Murray, "it's our aim that wherever you live in the UK, you'll be able to access adaptive lessons within a two-hour drive of your home." With much remaining to be done on the Continent, it seems the message is slowly getting through, thanks to an increasing number of enlightened service providers.

"Our philosophy is to offer ski holidays to clients whatever their needs," says Nina Hasinski, owner of Redpoint Holidays, an operator based in Fugen, Switzerland. "If they are skiers with disabilities then we will merely meet those requirements."

The cost of kitting out an adaptive skier is high, says Ms Hasinski, (from £1,800 to £2,500 per person, according to DSUK) and that is difficult to pass on to customers. "We hire when we need to but also work on the basis of encouraging groups to come," adds Ms Hasinski.

Gary Murray concurs. "At DSUK, we always make the point that if you cater for one [adaptive skier], you can invariably rely on up to three able-bodied skiers coming with them and that means more business."