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Ski school helps the blind brave the slopes

Some instructors guide blind skiers down the slopes using poles. Swiss National Association for the Blind

Best known for attracting the rich and famous to its slopes each winter, the Swiss mountain resort of St Moritz is also home to a ski school for the blind and visually impaired.

This content was published on March 3, 2004 - 08:33

swissinfo’s Joanne Shields spent a day with one of the school’s instructors and her pupil.

The St Moritz ski school has been offering lessons since 1981. Since then, people have come from around Europe - and sometimes beyond - to take lessons here.

Although it is self-financed, fundraising events have enabled it to offer lessons at prices generally lower than the cost of normal tuition.

Slalom race

The morning I joined ski instructor Marlies Kölbener she was teaching Valerie, a seven-year-old from Zurich who has less than 30 per cent vision.

For the first part of the lesson Valerie joined a group of other children taking part in a normal slalom race.

When it came to Valerie’s turn, Marlies skied around five metres ahead of her, calling out instructions to turn left or right around the slalom poles.

Valerie successfully negotiated the markers and completed the race in around the same time as the others.

Special needs

Watching at the finishing line were Valerie’s parents. Her mother told me they brought her daughter to the St Moritz school after they realised she couldn’t be taught in the same way as a child with full sight.

“Before we took her to a normal ski school, but the teacher got scared because Valerie couldn’t see the edge of the slope properly, which is dangerous,” she said.

“The last time we tried to get her lessons, they said they couldn’t take her, and that’s very hard for a child to accept.”

But, when a pupil is taught by a specialised teacher, Marlies told me, there’s every chance they will reach a high level of skiing.

“You’d be surprised,” she said. “Some of them can ski very well – very fast but safely. Many of them become very confident.”

Teaching techniques

During Valerie’s lesson, we skied down a range of intermediate-level slopes.

Marlies stayed at a short distance in front and spoke constantly to her pupil, giving either instructions or encouraging words. The idea was to ensure Valerie focused on her instructor and not the sounds around her.

To make skiers more aware of her, Valerie wears a yellow vest with three black dots on, indicating she is either blind or visually impaired.

Marlies says there is a range of techniques for teaching blind and visually impaired people to ski.

“It depends firstly on how well they can see. Sometimes it’s easier when a pupil is completely blind, because those who have some vision often exaggerate how much they can see, and so I can’t gauge as easily what their needs are.”

“Also, those who have been blind from birth are generally more confident skiers than people who have lost their sight later on in life.”

She adds that another important factor is trust.

“You tell some children to stop, or go left or right and they do. Others don’t, and for the ones who don’t, I often take two poles and I hold one end and the pupil holds the other behind me.”

The instructors also try to get a sense of what skiing must be like for their pupils. As part of their training, they have to wear blindfolds or goggles that restrict their sight when skiing.

Strength to strength

Since it first opened, the St Moritz ski school has clocked up some 5,500 days of lessons, averaging around 250 days per ski season.

Last year, the school was awarded the “White Cane”, for services to blind people in 2003.

School manager Peter Notz says that thanks to the award, this year looks set to be considerably more successful than previous years.

“Already we can tell that we will have two or three times more pupils than last year, which is a huge rise,” he said.

swissinfo, Joanne Shields in St Moritz

In brief

The St Moritz ski school for the blind and visually impaired opened in 1981.
It has clocked up some 5,500 days of lessons since it began.
The school raises money by organising fundraising events such as Christmas auctions, and selling merchandise.
As a result, lessons are cheaper than normal ski tuition, with a private, two-hour lesson costing SFr30.
The pupils also get a discount on their ski lift passes.

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