At A School For Kids With Disabilities, The Ski Team Hits The Slopes

Mar 1, 2016
Originally published on March 14, 2016 4:49 pm

Standing at the foot of Mount Wachusett's slopes, Ray Jackman bends over and hoists Robbie McAllister out of his wheelchair and onto two neon yellow skis.

The teenager squeezes into a thick plastic seat mounted just above the skis.

"OK, there are a bunch of straps," says Jackman as he buckles the crisscrossing seatbelts.

Jackman is a program coordinator at the Massachusetts Hospital School, a state-run facility. It's half school, half pediatric hospital, and all 85 students are patients, with serious, long-term conditions.

That doesn't keep them from activities kids at other schools do: like skiing. Today, Jackman is out with the ski team, and his buddy for the day is McAllister.

The 19-year-old has cerebral palsy, which means he has minimal control over his muscles.

That doesn't worry Jackman. Twenty years ago, he quit his job as a mortgage banker, got rid of all his suits and ties, and started working full-time helping kids with limited mobility find ways to play highly mobile sports.

"Let's fly down that mountain at 100 mph. I want to pass that able-bodied person," Jackman tells his student.

And their day goes a lot like most skiing trips. There are just a few extra steps.

At the base of the chair lift, Jackman and a volunteer lift McAllister and his seat onto the chair lift.

On the way up, it's typical field-trip chitchat — "Would you rather be skiing or in school?" Jackman asks.

The answer? "Skiing!"

They talk about serious stuff, too. Jackman acknowledges that it takes a lot for McAllister to leave his electric wheelchair — his comfort zone. "You have a lot of trust in me and I appreciate that," Jackman says.

At the top, they scoot off the chairlift to a panoramic view of evergreens and brushed snow.

Jackman gets to work arranging two tether lines. He will ski about 6 feet behind McAllister, giving him a tug in the right direction and acting as the student's brakes — it's a type of adaptive skiing.

"Are we ready?" Jackman screams into the wind. "Yeah!"

And off they go. "Let's go over those little jumps," Jackman responds as they start to harness the pull of the slope and gravity. McAllister's guttural screams, filled with excitement and terror, echo across the slopes as they speed past all the other skiers.

At the bottom, McAllister is beaming. "He wanted more, more, more," his coach says. "I think I heard: 'Faster!' "

Several runs later, they head inside to warm up.

Back in their wheelchairs, the three students on this trip sit by the fireplace, eating warm chili and sipping hot chocolate.

Jackman says this is the school's riskiest sport, surpassing wheelchair football, swimming and horseback riding.

Yet, he adds, it's worth it. He notes that this is basically work they could do in a clinic, just not in a clinical setting. On the slopes, the students are using skills they've learned in physical therapy, speech therapy and occupation therapy.

The kids are engaging in different exercises, but it's done without measuring whether the kid looked 45 degrees this way or lifted 10 pounds that way.

Instead, Jackman says, "I only measure it through a smile."

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Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Massachusetts, there is a state-run facility that is half school, half pediatric hospital. All of the students are battling serious long-term health conditions. Most are in wheelchairs, but that doesn't stop them from hitting the slopes. Gabrielle Emanuel of NPR's Ed team recently grabbed her skis and joined them.

GABRIELLE EMANUEL, BYLINE: Ray Jackman stands at the foot of Mount Wachusett's slopes. They're bright in the morning sun. He bends over and hoists Robbie McAllister out of his wheelchair and onto two neon yellow skis.

RAY JACKMAN: Feeling good?

EMANUEL: The teenager in his puppy jacket squeezes into a thick plastic seat mounted just above the skis.

JACKMAN: OK, there's a bunch of straps we strap in with. We'll do this one - yep - then this waist one, pull that snug.

EMANUEL: Jackman runs the recreational program at Massachusetts Hospital School. He works with all 85 students. But today, he's Robbie's ski buddy. With Jackman pushing the seat from behind, they head towards the rickety chairlift.

And Robbie, how old are you?

ROBBIE MCALLISTER: Nineteen.

EMANUEL: Nineteen.

MCALLISTER: Yeah.

EMANUEL: Robbie has cerebral palsy, which means he doesn't have much control over his muscles, and it's hard for him to talk. But that doesn't worry Jackman. Twenty years ago, Jackman quit his job as a mortgage banker, got rid of all his suits and ties to work here full-time, helping kids with limited mobility find ways to play highly mobile sports.

JACKMAN: Let's fly down that mountain a hundred miles an hour. I want to pass that able-bodied person. I want to go faster than you (laughter).

EMANUEL: Well, that's exactly what happened. I'm a pretty basic skier, and that first time down the slopes, they went way faster than me, clocking 30 miles per hour. Down at the bottom of the hill, we hatched a plan. I give them the recorder.

JACKMAN: Oh, this is going to record.

EMANUEL: Yeah, it's recording.

JACKMAN: OK.

EMANUEL: OK.

JACKMAN: We're off.

EMANUEL: Jackman and a volunteer - usually a local policeman - lift Robbie plus his seat onto the chairlift.

JACKMAN: One, two, three.

EMANUEL: On the way up, it's typical field trip chitchat.

JACKMAN: Would you rather be in school, or would you rather be skiing?

MCALLISTER: Skiing.

EMANUEL: It's serious, too. It takes a lot for Robbie to leave his electric wheelchair, his comfort zone. You have a lot of trust in me, Robbie, and I appreciate that.

MCALLISTER: Yeah.

JACKMAN: All right, so are you almost ready to get off?

EMANUEL: At the top of the mountain, they arrange two tether lines. This is a type of adaptive skiing. Jackman skis about six feet behind Robbie, giving him a tug in the right direction and acting as Robbie's brakes.

JACKMAN: Are we ready?

MCALLISTER: Yeah.

JACKMAN: Let's go.

MCALLISTER: Yeah.

EMANUEL: It's like a roller coaster - terrifying and exhilarating.

JACKMAN: Go over those little jumps?

MCALLISTER: Yeah.

JACKMAN: Here we go.

MCALLISTER: (Shouting).

JACKMAN: Here comes another one.

MCALLISTER: (Shouting).

JACKMAN: Awesome.

EMANUEL: Done with the jumps, they make big swoops down the mountain.

JACKMAN: Go right around these people here. Do a nice right. Nice job.

EMANUEL: At the bottom, Robbie is beaming.

JACKMAN: He was screaming. He wanted more, more, more. I think I heard, faster.

EMANUEL: Were you screaming faster?

MCALLISTER: Yeah.

EMANUEL: After a few hours on the slopes, Robbie heads in to meet his teammates. Three kids get to go skiing each week. Back in their wheelchairs, they sit by the lodge fireplace, eating warm chili and sipping hot chocolate. Ray Jackman says this is the school's riskiest sport, surpassing wheelchair football, swimming, horseback riding. Yet, he says it's worth it. It's clinical work. It's just not in a clinical setting. The kids are doing physical therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy. But he doesn't measure whether the kids look 45 degrees that way or lift 10 pounds this way.

JACKMAN: I only measure through a smile.

EMANUEL: Gabrielle Emanuel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.