Deaf lift operator at Breckenridge Ski Resort teaches fellow employees better communication
BRECKENRIDGE SKI RESORT — In 2018, Allison Cunningham decided she wanted to work at a ski resort. As a lifelong skier and snowboarder who grew up visiting the mountains from Denver, Cunningham said she applied for several on-mountain positions in 2018 at 15 resorts across Colorado.
She ended up getting a job at Beaver Creek Resort as a ticket scanner, but she really wanted to work as a lift operator, something she said resort officials were resistant to because of safety concerns since Cunningham was born deaf.
“It was very stressful …” Cunningham said about being a ticket scanner. “But it taught me to work outdoors all day, and it taught me customer service.”
In spring 2019, Cunningham applied for a summer job at Breckenridge Ski Resort, and in March, she started working as a mountain activities attendant.
“That manager was not afraid to hire me,” Cunningham said. “I felt good. It was positive. It was so supportive.”
Breckenridge spokeswoman Sara Lococo said diversity among employees, including those with physical disabilities, is welcomed at Vail Resorts.
“We are committed to creating a work environment that provides fair and equal employment opportunity for all employees and applicants,” Lococo wrote in an email.
Cunningham said that during the summer, she received two recognition cards: one for customer service and another for preventing an accident when a boy ran toward a moving chairlift.
“Customer service and safety, that’s what the lift operators want,” Cunningham said. “All of my supervisors said they wanted me to be a lift operator. They asked me to stay for the winter … so I applied for lift operations.”
David Little, who manages lift operations, said Cunningham went through the normal process of applying, and then he interviewed her several times with an interpreter. Little explained that he spent more time interviewing Cunningham so that he could understand how to help her be successful.
Cunningham was hired as a lift operator for the 2019-20 ski season at Breckenridge.
“He gave me a chance, and he allowed me to speak for myself and explain what I needed and what I could do,” Cunningham said.
Little said that in the process of working with Cunningham, he and the Breckenridge lift operations team have learned a lot about communication.
“She’s been really proactive in communication with us, and we’ve learned a lot on how we can improve our communication,” Little said. “It’s been a good learning experience for our crew. I think they’ve learned a lot about the value of clear communication.”
Little said he’s proud of Cunningham and the team for working together to better share information. At first, he said, they had to make sure the safety protocols worked for Cunningham. Now, Cunningham is diligent about making sure her fellow employees are safe.
“It’s a great step forward, and we’ve come a long way,” Little said. “We have a long way to go, but I’m impressed every day with how we continue to work through challenges together.”
In her first season as a lift operator, Cunningham says she feels at home.
“Each mountain has different personalities; each community has different personalities,” Cunningham said. “Finally, Breckenridge seems to really fit me well.”
Cunningham also has worked with the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center as a student and snowboard instructor, and she is taking classes at Colorado Mountain College.
“I want to get a bachelor’s degree in leadership and management. That would allow me to be promoted and become a supervisor in lift operations at Breckenridge,” Cunningham said, adding that she also would like to help expand the adaptive snowboarding program at the Outdoor Education Center.
“I just want to be in Breckenridge, period,” she said. “I love being outside. I love the people.”