Program Profile

Impact Feature Issue on Social Inclusion Through Recreation for Persons with Disabilities

Making Possibilities for People with Disabilities:
Challenge Aspen


Stacey Degen is Program Coordinator with Challenge Aspen, Aspen, Colorado

Allison Bartholomaus is Volunteer Coordinator with Challenge Aspen, Aspen, Colorado

Challenge Aspen is a year-round program that provides recreational and cultural experiences for individuals who have mental or physical disabilities, their families, and their friends. A non-profit organization, it was formed in 1995 when it took over the 25-year-old adaptive ski program from Aspen Skiing Company. Challenge Aspen continues to work closely with Aspen Skiing Company, and also with local outfitters, to offer a variety of daily activities such as skiing, whitewater rafting, horseback riding, and fishing. We also host a number of camps throughout the year, including a mono-ski camp and a rock climbing camp for paraplegics and amputees, a ski festival for persons with visual impairments, and children’s art and music camps. Based in Snowmass Village with access to the area’s four ski mountains, Challenge Aspen currently serves approximately 400 participants each year, with over 2100 participant days (one person participating one day equals one participant day). With a full-time staff of eight, a volunteer force of more than 100, and a volunteer board of directors, Challenge Aspen is the only organization in the Aspen area that offers such a broad spectrum of recreation opportunities to people with disabilities.

At Challenge Aspen we believe that all people have the same essential needs and that realizing one’s ability leads to the fulfillment of needs. The result of participating in our program is often an improved self-image and greater self-confidence. The Challenge Aspen experience often gives participants the courage to achieve personal goals in all areas of their lives. Knowing that we can make a difference in the life of an adult, child, or family is the reason that Challenge Aspen pursues its mission of “possibilities for people with disabilities.”

At Challenge Aspen we believe in the philosophy of social inclusion. Social inclusion refers to people with and without disabilities working together to reach a common goal. The philosophy of social inclusion goes well beyond non-discrimination and takes a proactive approach to encompass people of all abilities. For community settings such as Challenge Aspen, an inclusive approach involves actively promoting general programs to people with and without disabilities and planning ahead for their integrated participation. In addition to the benefits to those with disabilities, inclusive programs help everyone to become more sensitive to individual differences. This awareness of and sensitivity to individual differences will lead to attitudes of acceptance, which will carry over to all areas of life.

An example of our most successful camp with regards to the philosophy of social inclusion is a program called The Magic of Music and Dance. Camp registration is exclusive to kids with disabilities, although a large pool of volunteers, with and without disabilities, become excellent peers to the camp participants with disabilities and an integral part of the camp as a whole. Friendships are made each year among the group. The social inclusion philosophy becomes evident as these friendships are formed. Appropriate social skills, aspirations for higher levels of physical fitness, and overall increased self-esteem are benefits that have been demonstrated from this interaction. Volunteers may participate one-on-one as a buddy to one of the participants with a disability, help out with set designs and costumes, and assist with food and beverage preparation. The disabilities of volunteers have included Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy, stroke, and minor brain injuries. Depending on the level of disability, a staff member or another volunteer may supervise them while performing their responsibilities, or they may handle their responsibilities on their own. Because the environment is supportive and supervised by staff members, the social inclusion concept is very successful.

During the winter, Challenge Aspen acts as the adaptive ski school for the Aspen Skiing Company. Due to the various levels of disabilities in our program, Challenge Aspen offers a variety of services. One of the programs that Challenge Aspen offers that demonstrates social inclusion is our group ski lessons that bring together children with mild to moderate disabilities and non-disabled children. In order to help facilitate this integration process, Challenge Aspen provides a qualified volunteer to support each child with a disability who needs additional assistance in the group setting. This volunteer helps to ensure a safe and supportive environment while the child learns social interaction and skiing skills. In addition to the benefits to the child with a disability, the others benefit through increased disability awareness.

In 1999, Challenge Aspen implemented a program that combines disability awareness and volunteer service. A six-week curriculum was designed and implemented into the 7th-grade classrooms within the Roaring Fork Valley. This program was created with the goal in mind of not only teaching disability awareness to the students, but also of encouraging the students to volunteer their time working with people with disabilities in recreational settings. This program has proven to be very successful in that it has increased the volume of students who are now committed volunteers to our program. Because of the success of this mentorship program, Challenge Aspen has branched out to high school students and offered a shorter and more specific mentorship experience. The Colorado Rocky Mountain School (CRMS, a local private high school) and Challenge Aspen have collaborated to provide a unique experiential learning process. Challenge Aspen provides intensive training to the 10 CRMS students for four days on how to be skiing guides for persons with vision loss. The CRMS students are then joined by 10 students with vision loss, allowing them to put their newly acquired skills into practice. One CRMS student and one blind student are paired up to work together on the ski hill. The three days are spent learning new skiing skills, exploring new terrain, and developing relationships. The social inclusion process occurs as students acquire these skills.

Challenge Aspen embraces social inclusion in many ways. While Challenge Aspen was initially created as a physical activity program for individuals with disabilities, we have found that the peer interaction between persons with and without disabilities has proven to strengthen our program as a whole. Challenge Aspen has the philosophy that the social inclusion process can be very successful, even though it is not the primary focus of our programs. We implement this process in a discreet manner, to ensure Challenge Aspen follows the mission of making possibilities for persons with disabilities. Not only has Challenge Aspen benefited from the social inclusion process, but the various families from around the United States that visit our program have also benefited.