The feeling is what I remember the most from that morning on Nov. 14, 2020. I stopped to catch my breath and saw it: The Compound indoor skatepark here in Calgary, Alberta temporarily dressed in bright colours, LED light strips, and tactile guidelines. It was my first glimpse of what an accessible skatepark could look like, and for the first time in a while I felt like I didn’t need to struggle to be there – to be a part of the main story. I felt that, despite my vision loss, I belonged.
Belonging is a feeling I will always chase in skateboarding, both for myself, and for other low vision people. The story of my life over the past few years is proof that accessible and adaptive skateboarding is achievable in immediate ways, and skateboarding as a community is beyond willing to empower anyone who wants to get involved. Read on to learn more about how my friends and I started Alt Route Accessible Skateboarding, and where we are going next.
Matt Janz Starts Skate Bats Back in 2019
My journey with accessible, inclusive skateboarding started back in 2019. A good friend and mentor, Jason Dueck, hired me into his non-profit, Skatelife, to see if we could start a skateboard club for low vision youth here in Calgary. He knew three things: I was losing vision because of a genetic condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa; I was still skateboarding aggressively; I love sharing the joy of skateboarding with others. Jason, his staff, and his volunteers worked to make Skatelife an inclusive environment. They went through the considerable hassle of registering for adaptive technology, provided safe transportation to and from events, and acted as sighted guides during meetings and industry gatherings where handshakes and body language haunt those with sight loss. The inclusive adjustments they made enabled me to start Skate Bats, which is now a fully operational skateboard club with six regular low vision students here in Calgary, and several casual participants in other parts of Alberta.
From Student to Boss: Curtis Ruttle Starts Alt Route to Increase Skatepark Accessibility
In August 2020, one of my participants, a particularly driven young man named Curtis Ruttle, called to tell me about an idea. He was thinking about applying for a small grant from Taking It Global’s Rising Youth program, with which he wanted to start a small skatepark accessibility project. I made a few industry phone calls to see how receptive Calgary’s skateboarding community would be to this idea – the support we received was immediate. Everett Tetz and Newline Skateparks began consulting for us, and connected us with advocates like Dan Mancina. Jarod Anderson and The Compound donated facility and volunteers. Jason Dueck and Skatelife also donated volunteers. Kevin Lowery and Ninetimes sponsored with product and connected us with Adidas. Our little idea turned into a sizable project quickly thanks to these names and companies.
We had help from outside the skateboarding community, too. Both Rising Youth and the CNIB (Canadian National Institute for the Blind) lent huge corporate resources like public relations materials and Zoom accounts. AMI (Accessible Media Inc began filming a documentary worth half my yearly salary. I love skateboarding, but I hate skateboarding on camera, so everything was great.
With grant money in our pockets, and way more support than we originally anticipated, we began to think about the project at hand. How, we asked ourselves, can we make skateparks more inclusive for people living with sight loss? The answer was up to us.
Finding Out What Low Vision Kids Need to Skateboard Safely
The next few months were nothing but fun for me, if not a little bit of a headache for Curtis. I would run around The Compound acting like a kid while teaching the Skate Bats students new skills in the unfamiliar park.
The fun learning environment I created lent itself to the real work. Curtis followed behind and developed a conversation about accessibility and inclusion. We asked the kids what they liked about the park, what they didn’t; what they would change, and what they would add – all according to their own specific types and amounts of vision loss. From their input, and Curtis and my own experience with vision loss, we generated several simple but effective methods of adapting the park for better low vision use.
The usefulness of these adaptations was apparent right away. Something as simple as a high contrast guideline between ramps enabled one of my students to perform a move he previously thought terrifying and impossible. More on that student in later blogs. See our adaptive methods catalogue below.
Alt Route Hosts an Accessible Skatepark Showcase Event
All the work Curtis and the Skate Bats did culminated in a final showcase event on November 14, 2020. Everything was set: broadcast and print journalists were in attendance, prizes and swag bags organized, support staff in place and ready to work, and all pandemic safety protocols remained fully intact. We spent the afternoon showing the world what low vision skateboarding can look like.
That is when it all hit me. That feeling of belonging came over me like a wave as I stopped to take in all the work Curtis and I did during those Fall months. We were helping make skateboarding more accessible for ourselves, our friends, and who knows how many people in the future who will be forced to wade into the uncertain, stressful world of vision loss.
Nothing changed between our research period and the showcase event. I ran around acting like an idiot on a skateboard, while Curtis did all the work organizing volunteers and conducting interviews with journalists. I think we have a good working relationship.
Cheers could be heard in The Compound that afternoon because something amazing was happening. Youth with 10 or five per cent vision were skateboarding much better than most people in the world. Skateboarding is a hard thing to do, let alone doing it with reduced vision, but they were doing it. All it took was some support from the community and a few simple adaptations, and a whole new world of movement and creative expression was opened to them.
Why it is Important to Make Skateparks More Accessible and Inclusive
One thing I struggle with during vision loss is identity. Who, I ask myself a 3 a.m. every night, am I going to be when all my vision is gone? There have to be other people asking themselves that question, too. Our showcase, all the support we received from Calgary’s skateboarding community, all the support we received from the CNIB, Rising Youthand AMI – it all taught me that I get to be someone post vision loss. I get to still skateboard no matter what happens with my eyes. I want other people to feel that way because of Alt Route Projects in the future.
To me, our showcase event back in November 2020 was a statement. Any project we do in the future is going to speak loudly, too. These kids were brave enough to defy a perceived barrier and build their own equity into the world of skateboarding. Neon coloured Duck Tape in strange patterns at a skatepark now serve as a whole new language of movement and mobile freedom for an entirely new user group, and who knows how they will influence the world of skateboarding in turn. I think projects like this are going to keep coming up, and the Skate Bats are going to continue to have the opportunity to speak about who they are in the world of skateboarding and beyond.
Check Back to Follow Our Story in 2021
Curtis and I still have momentum from our showcase last year – even as I type this blog months later. We have been on podcasts, spoken as panelists, and have made some important connections in the greater world of skateboarding. There are many projects we want to complete in the near future, so make sure you check back with us here at altroute.ca to watch our work evolve and grow.