The Sit-Ski

Winter in Wisconsin is a wonderful time for outdoor recreation. Despite the cold weather and waist deep snow thousands turn out each year to engage in sports that range from downhill and cross-country skiing, to snowboarding and cyclo-cross bike riding.

With so many snow sports to pick from winter is for everyone. And thanks to local attorney Donald Becker, even people with disabilities can experience cold weather fun. Having financed the creation and mass production of an adaptive snow vehicle called a sit-ski, Becker is making it possible for those unable to walk to glide over frozen terrain.

Jane Schmieding has multiple sclerosis, a degenerative medical condition that severely affects her arm and leg strength as well as her sense of balance. Typically she gets around on a motorized scooter that allows her enjoy an active social lifestyle. But deep snow through a Wisconsin winter makes it difficult for her to enjoy time outdoors. But that all changed when she was introduced to the sit-ski.

“I’ve been at able to take it the state parks where I’ve met some really nice people and I’ve made lots of friends,” Schmieding said. “Now I’m part of the cross-country ski community.”

Self-described as a recreational sit-skier, Schmieding is now one of many in the Madison area who use the adaptive device. Essentially a small chair mounted on a pair of cross-country skis, the sit-ski lets those more comfortable in a seated position navigate hundreds of groomed trails throughout the state. Propelled primarily with arm strength using short ski poles, the sit-ski helps to make the sport much more accessible to people like Schmieding who are challenged by their physical limitations.

“With adaptive things like this out there, depending on your disability you can do just about anything,” she said, “as long as you have the will to do it.”

The program to make sit-skis available to Schmieding and others in the Madison area is in itself a sheer act of will. This initiative led and funded by Becker brought together local resources, facilities and volunteers to create a fleet of sit-skis to be used throughout the Capital Region and across the country. The lead attorney at Becker Law, a Wisconsin firm that specializes in Social Security disability, income, retirement and survivor benefits, Becker is a long-time supporter of the disabled. And as an avid skier, he’s also a benefactor to several ski-related programs including the American Birkebeiner cross country ski race held each year in Hayward. After an exhibition of the sit-skis by members of the U.S. Paralympic adaptive ski team at the Madison Winter Festival five years ago, Becker was inspired to help athletes with disabilities get the equipment they need.

“But unfortunately the only sit-skis available were all custom made and cost more than $2,000,” Becker said. “It was clear to me that most individuals who wanted to try it could never afford to buy one.”

In order to bring down the cost and make sit-skis more affordable Becker had to find a way to mass-produce them. That meant creating a design that was easy to duplicate and assemble with stock parts on an assembly line. Working with six-time Paralympic sit-ski champion Bob Balk and Jay Martin of the UW Center for Rehab Engineering and Assistive Technology, Becker put together a team capable of producing a device that fit the bill.

Several design students under Martin’s supervision took on the challenge and came up with a viable prototype in 2008. The final vehicle was created to work well for cross-country skiing in winter as well as offer the benefit of swapping out the skis with oversized tires to roll over trails in the spring and summer. The design is adjustable to fit many different body types. And has a production cost of only about $350.

But as a consumer product with a limited audience and minimal commercial value, the sit-ski still needed a little more help to get into full-swing production. Though he was at first skeptical of the project’s success, Martin said he changed his mind when so many people in the Madison community came on board to help.

“No company is going to produce 250 of these. It’s just not a business,” he said. “It has to be a community effort.”

Local companies like Fastenal, H&H Electric and Isthmus Engineering of Madison provided parts, workspace and equipment to build the sit-skis. Volunteers from the Madison Nordic Ski Club and students from the Madison School District’s high school robotics team, the BadgerBOTS, pitched in to help assemble them. With financial contributions from Becker amounting to $35,000 and additional funds from the U.S. Paralympics Team, the Christopher Reeve Foundation, the Gordon Flesh Foundation, the State of Wisconsin and others, more than 200 sit-skis are now getting into the hands of disabled skiers eager to try them out.

“We can make these sit-skis available at several different opportunity centers across the state. And we’ve had a lot of requests for them at other ski areas around the country,” Becker said. “This isn’t a design that we’re worried about a return on our investment. We want to connect with sit-skiers no matter where they are.”


This story originally appeared in the March issue of the Capital Regional Business Journal philanthropy feature Good Works

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I’m a freelance journalist that specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.