VR 360 View: Adaptive skiing giving lift to people with disabilities

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Hope on the Slopes: A Virtual Reality Experience by KPIX CBS SF Bay Area on YouTube

By Itay Hod, KPIX 

ALPINE MEADOWS, Placer County -- There are few places in the world that rival the beauty of Lake Tahoe on a sunny winter day, with its snow-capped mountains, towering peaks and endless miles of trails. 

For decades, it's been attracting adrenaline junkies looking for that magic run  —  the closest thing to flying without wings.  

It's the kind of feeling that awaits 24-year-old Connor Ford, who comes to Tahoe as often as he can.

Diagnosed with severe autism, he has a limited vocabulary. But put him on a pair of skis and there's no need for words.  

His mother, LaDonna, says the moment Connor even sees snow something inside him just clicks.  

"You can tell he feels it," she said. "He's on the skis, he looks typical because he's skiing with his buddy. It's a dream come true." 

It's all the more remarkable considering where he started. When he was just three years old, LaDonna had a sinking feeling that something wasn't right. Doctors told her Connor was on the autism spectrum and would likely need around-the-clock assistance. 

"I can't tell you how devastating a diagnosis like that is," she said. "I've got this smart, sweet kid and they're telling me he's basically going to sit around and do nothing all day for the rest of his life." 

Then, she heard of something called adaptive skiing and decided to give it a try.   

"I was terrified he'd have a tantrum at the top of the slope and I'd have to go get him and they wouldn't let us come back," she recalled.  

But, instead, something else happened.  Connor turned out to be a natural. 

"Fifteen minutes later, he's skiing down the mountain with his instructor and he's smiling," LaDonna said. "It was amazing." 

"He definitely has a different energy when he's on skis," his instructor, Michael Hunter, said. "There's more calm to his presence." 

Connor is one of 500 students at Achieve Tahoe, a ski school specifically dedicated to people with cognitive and physical challenges.  

"I think part of it is simply being in nature, being on the mountain, enjoying the snow and the beautiful skies around us and the happiness that it brings out in people," Hunter said.  

Adaptive skiing is just like regular skiing, except it uses specialized equipment and training to allow people with disabilities to experience the sport. It started out mostly for the physically challenged. But in recent years, it's expanded to include a broader spectrum of disabilities. 

Connor is one of the school's biggest success stories. As he effortlessly glides down the slopes, you can't tell him apart from other skiers, and that's exactly the point.  

"He's more confident now," LaDonna said of Connor. "He can do things other people can't do. I take videos and show it to his teachers, and they're amazed that the kid that they see in the classroom is doing such a difficult sport and they look at him in a different light." 

And it's not just his teachers. LaDonna said it's changed how she looks at him too. 

"I've always been told that Connor can't do things. 'He can't write his name, he can't brush his teeth, he can't, he can't, he can't.' And now I watch him ski down these mountains independently and he has a grin on his face and he's having such fun," she said.  

"It just gives me such hope." 

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