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

The adaptive skiing techniques used by the students and coaches at Massachusetts Hospital School's recreational program in Canton, Mass.

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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