Adaptive Snowboarding

Snowboarding-3Pipelines, shredding, jibbers, and boardercross are all part of the colorful trappings of what’s attracting winter sports lovers to the country’s newest and most popular pursuit of things-that-go-bump-in-the-snow. Otherwise known as snowboarding…..

Originally embraced by preteen and adolescent males who adapted ocean surfing and the fracture-prone sport of skate boarding to the more forgiving environs of powdered slopes, snowboarding has taken off wildly coast to coast. Though skiing, its more patrician Great Uncle, still rules, snowboarding — by its sheer exuberance and invitation to daring antics — is increasingly drawing new fans.

Some say the sport originated in Michigan in the mid-1960s when a dad joined two skis so his daughter could “surf” down a snow-covered hillside. Board designs evolved over the next two decades until adherents had spread across the country — often banned from ski resorts because of the excessive ‘enthusiasm’ displayed by its greatest fans, male teenagers. But snowboarding grew despite, or perhaps because of, its “bad boy” image. By the year 2000, a study on sports participation called it the country’s fastest growing recreation, followed by skateboarding. The study noted a 51.2% increase in participants from the previous year to a total of slightly more than 7.2 million advocates. In that same period, responses indicated, downhill skiers increased by only 6%, for a sum of 14.7 million enthusiasts.

“We’ve seen lots of growth in the past 10 to 15 years, with more organized classes and competitions on the East and West coasts,” noted veteran adaptive snow sports instructor Bobby Palm. “But more and more adaptive programs are including snowboarding, so our new PSIA-Rocky Mountain snowboard teaching guide is really timely. In essence, what we’re telling instructors is that anything goes in getting people of all ages into the fun of snowboarding as long as safety is the prime consideration!” he added.

Teaching the Teachers…

Accordingly, adaptive snow sports centers across the U.S. and beyond are offering lessons, equipment rentals, and designated slopes and woodlands to keep snowboarders happy. Growing numbers of PSIA instructors who specialize in teaching people with physical disabilities are jumping onboard. Clinics, modified equipment, and the new adaptive snowboarding instructional manual are just part of meeting the demand.
Bobby, a nationally-recognized adaptive sports expert, has been teaching people with disabilities adaptive skiing since 1975 and snowboarding for the past decade. He began in New Mexico as an instructor for kids with impairments and moved to getting disabled veterans on the slopes. This wealth of experience has been pooled with that of his colleagues in adaptive snow sports to create the just-produced snowboarding guide for the Rocky Mountain chapter of the Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA) that’s to be distributed at The Hartford Ski Spectacular in Breckenridge, Colo., in December. A majority of the writing was done by Karen Frei, with information and suggestions from Bobby and his colleagues on the Adaptive Snowboarding Committee who have contributed their time and expertise. They include Scott Anfang, Barbara Szwebel, and Bryan Olson, along with Earl Saline who offered substantial feedback and insights on the snowboarding end.

Snowboarding-21While Bobby has spent the past 28 years as an adaptive instructor, happenstance played a role in his initial choice of a career. A forestry worker, the seasonal nature of his job left him with lots of free time in the winter.

“I volunteered two days a week as an instructor at Ski Apache in southern New Mexico. Back then, I Rich Ganson with pupil Danielle Coulterwas somewhat uncomfortable around people with disabilities — I wasn’t sure how to relate — so this was a good opportunity to overcome that uneasiness. Before I knew it, I was hooked on teaching disabled kids how to ski,” he laughed.

When he’s not on the slopes, Bobby is a contractor/builder in Santa Fe, New Mexico. That pays the bills, but it’s the adaptive sports portion of his life that delivers maximum satisfaction.

“My goal isn’t to run programs, but to stay outside in the snow with the students — in the trenches. I design a lot of equipment variations and give the designs to manufacturers. Then I test the prototypes. They keep me supplied with equipment, so it’s a great system,” he explained.

A PSIA examiner and trainer for Challenge Aspen, Bobby has traveled across the nation and internationally — to Spain, Argentina, Korea, and Chile — to present adaptive snow sports clinics and teach instructors. His Colorado clinics have included sessions at Crested Butte, Telluride, Vail, Aspen, Steamboat, and Breckenridge. In recent years, he notes, most adaptive skiing programs have been expanded to include snowboarding.

“We’ve been trying to develop a safe methodology that can offer instructors and students the same options that we presently have for skiing. We design a lesson to accommodate both the student’s disability and the adaptive equipment available. We work on an individual basis with what we have,” he noted simply.

As far as Bobby is concerned, most kids and adults with physical and cognitive disabilities can experience the fun of snowboarding with the proper preparation and equipment. True to teaching any adaptive sport, safety for both the student and the other people in the area is the foremost consideration.

In much the same way that disabled athletes mastered adaptive ski equipment and techniques to bring their sport to a Paralympic level, it’s likely that adaptive snowboarders will also be producing glitzy moves and gravity-defying tricks suitable for international competition. Already, talented enthusiasts are divided between alpine and freerider snowboarders who value speed and deeply carved slalom turns, and the freestyle artist whose skill lies in tricks. For each, however, the attraction lies in combining snow and gravity for a wholesome, invigorating, and — most importantly — inclusive outdoor recreation experience.

“We’re learning and sharing things all the time as we improve our teaching methods,” Bobby stressed. “Some prosthetic components and orthopedic braces can take a real pounding in this sport, while others may require using some restraint. Adaptive equipment also has limitations which both the instructor and student must recognize. And most importantly, it’s vital that instructors are sensitive to each student’s strengths and abilities — boosting confidence and self-esteem while ensuring safety at all times — and then devise the appropriate equipment adaptations and teaching technique. With this depth of training and understanding, virtually anyone can participate on some level.

“An individual approach is key. No student wants to do the same thing as everyone else — everybody wants to do something different — but there’s a lot of cross-over in adaptive snow sports. Whether there’s more of a sense of ‘freedom’ in snowboarding versus skiing is all in the participant’s head,” he continued.

“What we’re most concerned with is seeing that kids and adults have a good time in the snow….. that people experience the simple joy of sliding….”

Snowboarding — By the ‘Book’

The new PSIA-Rocky Mountain snowboarding guide, specifically designed not to duplicate information found in the adaptive skiing instructions, offers detailed suggestions on teaching adults and children with a wide variety of disabilities. While stressing that students are all unique, the guide offers strength/weakness characteristics typical of people who fit into certain categories such as vision impairment (VI), hard of hearing (HOH), cognitive and neurological disorders, structural/anatomical anomalies (amputees), and combinations of impairments. Some conditions that would fall under these general categories would be arthritis, cancer, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, diabetes, post-polio, spina bifida, and partial hemiplegia.

Chapters in the new manual cover such topics as assessing students individually in terms of physical function and equipment needs, differences in teaching methods required for various disabilities, fitting students to adaptive equipment, choices in adaptive equipment, progression from basic to more advanced snowboarding techniques, and how to locate suppliers.

Start With Evaluations….

SnowboardingProspective snowboarders with amputations or limb discrepancies will be reviewed according to their functional abilities as well as the type of prosthesis worn. For those with lower limb impairment, instructors must assess which is the stronger or more coordinated leg — not always the same, according to the manual. That evaluation will determine which becomes the lead foot on the board. Instructors are reminded that lack of feeling in a prosthetic foot or residual limb slippage within a socket can decrease control of part of the board.

Also checked is the prosthetic leg’s degree of flexibility at the ankle and knee, and how much weight-bearing it can take. One solution is to use a heel lift in the boot in which the prosthesis is fitted to move the rider into a flexed stance. A trained instructor will work with the student to determine which type of stance is most comfortable and provides more control of the snowboard. The amputee’s prosthetist should also be made aware that the prosthesis will be used for snowboarding and consulted as to whether it is suitable or if a sports prosthesis is necessary.

Lower limb amputees who use a chair lift also present considerations since the rider is strapped into the board while heading for the top of the hill. It may be necessary to additionally secure a leg prosthesis with a knee strap and waist belt to keep the board’s weight from pulling the prosthesis loose. Adaptive instructors have found that upper limb amputees may or may not wear a prosthesis. Balance isn’t generally an issue for these people, but they must be reminded to keep their shoulders and arms forward and in the direction they’re moving, rather than weakening their stance by thrusting the amputated arm/shoulder back.

When it comes to instructing people with cerebral palsy, teachers are told that students can vary widely in both physical and cognitive abilities, so once again, individual assessment is crucial. Three types of spasms, which may appear singly or in combination with a CP learner, are identified in the new guide. A general problem is that muscle weakness may produce fatigue earlier than with some other students.

Beginning snowboarders who wear ankle foot orthoses (AFOs) or other types of leg braces will almost certainly need these on the slopes, the trainers are reminded. Most AFOs will fit into a snowboard boot, even if it needs to be one size larger. And, in the case of leg length discrepancy, differences can be equalized by inserting a shim or lift in the boot or between the binding and the boot, or under the binding. If leg weakness is a factor in both limbs, the student might benefit from using one or two outriggers, the manual adds.

Equipment Comes Next…

As with any adaptive sport, equipment may either be rented or purchased, depending on the supply carried at the site where lessons are held. It’s always best to inquire in advance as to what is available when arrangements are being made for lessons.


Designed to support the foot and keep the heel down, snowboard boots should fit snugly but not be too tight since movement generated by the body is transferred to the board via the boots. The ideal boot flexes to the degree the rider wishes; it should be comfortable and functional. If avoiding pressure areas or accommodating an AFO are concerns, the rider may need each boot in a different size.

The next choice is soft or hard boot. Softer styles deliver greater ankle flexibility and freedom of movement, while a stiffer boot offers increased ankle and foot support. Hard shell boots, similar to an alpine ski boot, aren’t as readily found, are harder to fit, and don’t prove as versatile in variable terrain or snow conditions since ankle movement is more restricted.


All snowboard bindings prevent release of the board for safety considerations. While some bindings must be paired with a particular boot, most are easily adjusted to accept a change in stance. And board responsiveness is directly related to how snugly the foot fits the boot, plus how much “wiggle” exists between the boot and binding. As students advance in skill, adjustments may be made for increased control.

Binding choices range from strap — the most popular — to step-in, which is boot-specific, and plate, which is designed for hard or alpine boots.


In general, snowboards are chosen on the basis of the rider’s height, weight, and ability level, with the upright board’s length usually between the rider’s chin and nose. While designs are similar, details separate choices into three styles — freestyle, freeriding, and alpine/race boards.

A freestyle board, also known as a twin tip, has an equally turned up tip and tail, and a soft flex. Extremely versatile, it can easily be ridden in either direction and is a good choice for beginners.

The freeriding or directional board is slightly stiffer and performs differently when going forward or backward. There is more stability when going forward, but the board also adapts well to different riding styles, types of terrain, and stance options.

Stiffer and less forgiving for the inexperienced rider, the alpine board has a more upturned nose than tail and a narrower mid-section. It is highly responsive and cuts or “carves” deeply through gates and when riding in groomed terrain, but is less versatile in varied terrain and snow conditions.


A major decision is the choice of stance, how the feet are positioned on the snowboard. Stance involves the angle of feet to the board’s edge, the distance between the feet, and which foot is deemed in the lead. For best results, a stance should be comfortable and place balance equally over both feet. An aligned stance helps maintain stability while riding; a directional or race stance lets the student effectively use two outriggers; a duck stance points one foot forward and the other to the rear, keeping muscles relaxed; and the open stance, with each foot set at a different degree, is appropriate for beginners to intermediate riders.

Choice of a stance should relate to the student’s balance, or how far the body can move without losing stability. Retaining balance is accomplished by adjustments to the ankles, knees, hips, and entire body; consideration is also given as to whether the student uses the ankle or knee as the primary flexing joint.

Adaptive Equipment

As snowboarding grows in popularity, options in equipment and teaching aids increase. Choices are divided into equipment which a student uses independently and that which is instructor guided or assisted. Appropriate equipment is ability-oriented and based on whether a student has sufficient balance and strength to ride vertically or needs to use a mono-ski type of adaptation.

Used by independent riders, ski poles can assist static balance, propulsion along a flat surface, or help initiate a turn; a nordic style bamboo pole helps with turning and slowing down. Devices such as the horse ‘n’ buggy, hula-hoop, and Board Buddy let an instructor assist with balance and initiating turns while avoiding direct hands-on teaching. All involve tubing around the student’s waist which is attached to long poles held by the instructor. The horse ‘n’ buggy system is more snug, letting the teacher initiate turns as well as control speed, while hula-hoop offers the student some stability but is too loose to control turns. The Board Buddy operates like a wind surfer boom with a belt that encircles the student’s waist.

Another option is one or two outriggers. Canadian-style crutches with a ski tip at the end, they aid balance and lessen fatigue, and some are shock-absorbing. Students with weakness in the lower body may benefit from a rider bar, an upside down, waist-high U-shaped bar mounted under the bindings. Riders can stabilize the upper body by holding on — pushing it forward to move to the toe edge, and backward to move to the heel edge.

Tethering, an option used for many students, helps the instructor control speed and direction as well as initiate turns. The tether is attached to the front of the board rather than the student, its placement depending on many variables.

A tandem board has two sets of bindings to accommodate both student and instructor. It was developed in Europe and used for instructing students with impaired vision, but it’s a valuable tool for working with beginners with many types of impairments. The tandem lets students experience the fun of dynamic riding without worrying about controlling the board.

Finally, a sit-board has a mono-ski seat or similar rig mounted on the board for those who can’t ride in a standing position. Depending on the seat’s height from the snow, students can either use their arms, a hand-pick, or an outrigger to initiate turns.

It’s the season to start thinking about snowboarding. I’ve been a below-knee amputee for ten years and an avid snowboarder for eight.

Snowboarding has given me some of the most blissful moments I’ve ever experienced. For amputees with a desire to snowboard, here are two obvious, but important, pieces of snowboarding advice:

  1. Wear a helmet.
  2. Take a lesson.

Eight years ago few, if any, adaptive snowboard lessons were offered. Today, there are adaptive schools at most resorts and many offer snowboard lessons along with adaptive skiing techniques. If the ski resort near you doesn’t offer adaptive snowboard lessons, voice your disappointment and ask for referrals in the area.

If lessons aren’t available nearby or you are about to have your first lesson, here are a couple tips for getting started. The most important point for the amputee snowboarder to consider is how well their prosthesis is fitting. How does your residual limb fit in its socket? What suspension system do you use? What kind of prosthesis do you use?

Winter is when my prosthetic and my residual limb get the most use and abuse. I snowboard on a Pathfinder® II foot, wear custom Alpha® DESIGN™ Liners with a shuttle lock system, and wear an additional suspension sleeve for extra security. I’ve seen amputee riders use knee straps, waist belts, full lace-up leggings, etc. Do whatever is necessary to keep your prosthesis secure!

Some amputees, especially bilateral transfemoral amputees, use no prostheses at all and fit the residual limb(s) directly into a snowboard boot. For transfemoral amputees it can be advantageous to ride with the prosthetic knee in a flexed position. Some AK prostheses have this feature built in. If yours does not, there are methods to make this happen with a leg that only locks the knee in the straight position: heavy cardboard and duct tape (the secret weapon of any adaptive endeavor), a knee brace “fixed” in a flexed position, rebar, and even PVC piping.

Once you’ve made sure your prosthesis will stay securely on, think about how you want to ride the snowboard. Remember… this is snow-boarding and there are no actual rules. You can ride a snowboard two ways: regular and goofy. This refers to the dominant way you point the board down the hill. Regular means left foot forward, and goofy means right foot forward. You can also ride switch, i.e. riding the opposite way from your dominant stance. I ride regular with my prosthesis in back, but numerous amputees ride with their prosthesis in front. I also try to switch ride…it keeps me honest. After determining your dominant stance there are a million different stance angles and stance widths to try out.

Snowboarding is easy, but can be involved. The more you get out and do it, the easier snowboarding becomes, and the more you’ll figure out personal riding preferences. Think about snowboarding… hope to see you out there!