No skiing handicaps

Claude-Alain Hofer pilots Liam Stapleton around the slopes

Villars in canton Vaud is one of Switzerland's best resorts for skiers of all abilities.

This content was published on August 11, 2005 minutes

Over the past few years, Villars has developed a reputation for making handicapped holidaymakers feel welcome, on and off the slopes.

Irishman Liam Stapleton makes a perfect slalom turn as he speeds down a red run. But instead of watching where he is going, he is admiring the mountain panorama.

"There are really two parts that I find the best," he says as he stops to articulate his thoughts.

"One is the skiing but equally as beautiful are the views. Where else do you have views like this, this is just fantastic!"

Stapleton actually does not know how to ski and when he developed multiple sclerosis a few years ago, he never thought he would have the chance - until he heard about Villars and a company called Handiconcept.

Multiple sclerosis

The multiple sclerosis has severely limited his mobility, confining him much of the time to an electric scooter.

But when he is on the Villars slopes he happily exchanges his three-wheeler for one of Handiconcept's specially designed skis - a "ski chair".

The ski chair is piloted by the head of the company, Claude-Alain Hofer, who stands behind it with his boots fastened into two extra long skis, which run under the passenger seat.

Hofer navigates the ski chair with a handlebar and the chair tilts to the side in turns, increasing the thrill for disabled passengers like Stapleton who don't have to do anything but enjoy the ride.

Highly recommended

"I can put my hands down and touch the snow when we're turning and the seat is exceptionally comfortable," Stapleton enthuses.

"I'd recommend it even to able bodied people. Everybody should have a go at this!"

The ski chair is one of many types of skis in Handiconcept's arsenal adapted to suit any type of disability.

Para- or quadriplegics can take lessons in using mono- or bi-skis, and the company also offers ski instruction for the mentally handicapped.

Hofer says all the services are offered at normal ski hire or instruction rates.

Sceptical start

"At the beginning it was difficult," Hofer admits. "People asked me why I wanted to start a sport and leisure company for the handicapped, and I told them that there was a need for such a service."

From a few paying customers the first couple of years, Hofer's company has grown and now counts about 300 clients in winter, many of whom bring their families and friends.

The strong demand has convinced the ski lift company, and the owners of many of the resort's hotels, apartments and restaurants to make their facilities more accessible.

Hofer has done his bit by supplying wheelchairs to some of the restaurants in the village and the ski area, so disabled skiers can independently - and with relative ease - take a break for lunch.

All of the approved establishments are listed on Handiconcept's website (see "related sites") which includes detailed information on the facilities available.

Summer offers

Buoyed by his company's success, Hofer has expanded to offer summer recreational activities.

"Our customers can choose between mountain biking [using all-terrain bicycles designed for the disabled] or tandem paragliding flights," he says.

"We also want to organise three or four-day trekking excursions for groups of children or adults."

Stapleton is thrilled that Handiconcept has given him the chance to enjoy sport with his family – as an active member.

"My daughter skied down with me yesterday holding my hand and that's something we thought we would never be able to do, so it's just fantastic for all of us!"

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Villars

Key facts

Villars is situated at 1,300m with 120km of ski runs, 90 per cent either blue or red.
The slopes are reached from the village via cable car or train (wheelchair accessible).
Three-day or weekly ski passes are also valid for the adjoining resort of Les Diablerets.
Villars is one of the closest Swiss ski resorts to Geneva airport, which is only 115km away.
In summer, Villars has extensive hiking and mountain biking trails and an 18-hole golf course.

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In brief

Villars is the only resort in French-speaking Switzerland offering mountain recreational activities for the disabled.

Claude-Alain Hofer chose to set up his company, Handiconcept, in Villars because of its wide-open slopes - ideal for teaching beginners, it's reputation as a family resort and proximity to Geneva airport.

Handiconcept has adapted sports equipment for people with all types of disabilities.

The company has also compiled a detailed list including information on its website about hotels, apartments and restaurants which are accessible to the disabled.

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