Vermont organizations connect disabled athletes with specialized equipment and opportunities

A sunset on Lake Champlain seen from a sailboat on Tuesday, August 27, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Charles Prendergast’s first time sailing on Lake Champlain at a Northeast Disabled Athletes Association event felt like “day and night” compared to his previous experience sailing with an adaptive program. 

Earlier, he was just a passenger. On Lake Champlain, he found himself sailing the boat.

Prendergast, now a board member of the organization, said the boat’s two seats allowed him to be coached by an able-bodied volunteer while sailing it.

“You could recreationally sail, and you can also be competitive — which was even more fun because it was like, alright, now I’m kind of motivated to really learn how to make this thing go fast and really know what I’m doing,” Prendergast said of his experience.

In Vermont, adaptive sports — competitive or recreational sports for people with disabilities — range with the seasons, from skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing in the winter, to kayaking, cycling, mountain biking and canoeing in the summer. 

Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports, a nonprofit organization based at Pico Mountain in Killington, offers programs for hundreds of adaptive athletes every year, including ski programs at Killington Resort, Pico Mountain, Sugarbush Resort and Bolton Valley Ski Area. Similar programs are available through Green Mountain Adaptive Sports, based in Hyde Park, and the Northeast Disabled Athletic Association, based in Burlington. 

Accessible sports are made possible through trails, paths and specialized equipment that is built to adapt to athletes’ disabilities and allow them to participate safely.

As much as Vermont is associated with outdoor recreation opportunities, that’s not always true for people with disabilities. Programs and equipment can be “prohibitively expensive,” said Patrick Standen, one of the founders and board president of the Northeast Disabled Athletic Association. For that reason, the organization keeps its programming free and is completely run by volunteers. 

At Northeast, if a participant gets really into one sport, Standen said, the organization will refer them to the Kelly Brush Foundation to apply for a grant to fund that specific piece of sports equipment. The foundation — which is based in Burlington, but has funded grantees in every state except Delaware — runs two grant cycles every year. Handcycles are their most popular request.

“Your cheapest piece of equipment is going to be $800 for an ice hockey sled, and then it goes all the way up to $15,000 for an adaptive mountain bike,” said Greg Durso, a two-time Brush Foundation grantee for a handcycle and a monoski. Durso now serves as the program’s director.  

Beyond the availability of adaptive sports programs, Prendergast has also found Burlington’s outdoors, especially its paved bike path, to be highly accessible.

“I find Burlington to be an amazingly adaptive environment,” he said.

Standen, though, sees issues with the accessibility offerings of the city. 

“There’s really no completely barrier-free access to Lake Champlain,” he said. “So if you wanted to just go for a swim and you’re in a wheelchair, you want to get access to the lake, you probably would find it very difficult to do.”

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