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Conquering all challenges: Libby native leads active lifestyle despite disabilities

by Canda HarbaughWestern News
| November 18, 2009 11:00 PM

Wade Kuntz can feel the cool powder speckle his face, perhaps more acutely than others, as he shifts his weight to accommodate the changing terrain under his skis. He has negotiated the run many times before, but he must be careful – an abrupt variation in incline or another skier crossing his path could take him off guard and lead to a crash.

The 39-year-old grew up skiing Turner Mountain and other ridges in northwestern Montana and Idaho’s backcountry. He has taken on 28 skiable mountains in eight states, not including the peaks he has conquered in Canada.

The fact that Kuntz suffers a 60-percent hearing loss and has progressively lost most of his sight does not deter him from the winter sport he loves.

Kuntz credits the support network he formed growing up in Libby for giving him the inner strength to take on life as he does alpine skiing – with confidence, fearlessness and a personality that has no qualms with asking for help when needed. 

“I never really let that stop me from what I was doing,” Kuntz said, recalling being diagnosed with a degenerative eye condition at age 16. “Living in Libby, I had such a strong network of friends and support that it never slowed me down.”

With corrective lenses, Kuntz estimates that his sight is 20/440. He can decipher contrasts – such as that between the tree line and the groomed path – as he crisscrosses the runs at Mt. Ashland, a ski area less than an hour away from his home in Medford, Ore.

A friend sporting a “guide for blind” hunter orange vest leads Kuntz, who bears a matching “visually impaired skier” vest. Hearing aids concealed inside Kuntz’s ear canal amplify sound enough so that he and his guide can communicate through voice-activated walkie-talkie headsets.

“He’s such a good skier he can feel the terrain of the mountain as he’s going down the hill,” said his dad, Ray Kuntz, who resides in Libby. “… I look forward to the day he quits.”

Ray Kuntz appreciates his son’s courage to continue an active lifestyle, but as a father, he worries for his safety. He remembers his son ramming a bicycle so hard into a parked pickup that the wheel completely folded and he ended up inside the truck. Wade Kuntz’s vision at the time was well enough that he could read a newspaper, but his depth perception was limited.

“He finally sold his bicycle after smashing it up,” Ray Kuntz recalled. “I don’t know how many times I was called after he wrecked. He’s been patched up many times because of his visual problems.”

After participating in the 98-mile STOKR bike ride for a third time in 1997, Wade Kuntz decided that his vision had deteriorated enough that it was time to retire the hobby.

But Kuntz doesn’t focus on what he can’t do or what he used to be able to do. His vision will eventually go completely, but he has too much to look forward to in life to reflect on that.

“I don’t see detail like I used to,” Kuntz said. “… I’m not losing sleep over it – I’m not dwelling on it. Why? Because it’s something I can’t control.”

As a child, Kuntz dealt with only one disability – nerve deafness in both ears – but one was enough. At age 4 he was fitted with large conspicuous hearing aids.

“I was so retro, I had the kind (of hearing aids) that attached to my glasses,” Kuntz chuckled. “They had to modify my glasses so the arms of the glasses were my hearing aids.”

Kuntz couldn’t pick up high pitches, such as “s” sounds, and had to see a speech therapist throughout his elementary school years. Self-conscience of his disability, he grew his hair out over his ears and kept his distance from people. 

At 16, Kuntz hit a serious dilemma. If he wanted to earn money bagging groceries at Rosauers, he had to cut his hair. He says the decision changed his life.

Awkward and embarrassed of his exposed ears, at first he avoided eye contact and was mortified when customers asked about his hearing aids.

“Being out in the public, taking out their groceries, you have to communicate,” Kuntz said. “I adapted quickly because I didn’t have a choice.”

Kuntz shed his shyness and became more comfortable talking about his disability.

“I realized that as my comfort surrounding the issue of my disability increased, so did the comfort level of those around me,” he said. “I began to branch out and form a strong social network of friends and family.”

The support became invaluable to him when he was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa. The doctor bluntly told Kuntz that he would probably be blind before he could even return to Libby from Kalispell.

“That was quite a something to tell a 16-year-old boy,” Ray Kuntz recalled. “He barely had his driver’s license. He had to sell his car. I’m sure it was tough on him, but he never complained. Even to this day, he never complains about his situation.”

Wade Kuntz knew his vision was bad at night. He knew that he was never good at playing hide-and-seek in the dark, but to be told that he had an incurable eye disease that would lead to his blindness was too much to swallow. He wondered if he would ever be able to lead a productive life, have a family and continue to be an active outdoorsman.

“The only blind person I knew about was Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles,” Kuntz said. “I was not a musician so I was like, that’s not going to work. Having that network of friends – they gave me support and they gave me hope.”

Kuntz’s yearbook characterizes him as Libby High School’s “friendliest person.” When he visited Libby for his 20-year class reunion in July, he reconnected with old classmates. 

He was able to share his successes – a wife of nine years, Courtney, and a bachelor’s degree in health promotion and education that he completed in 2003. He worked for the U.S. Forest Service for nearly seven years and then became a claims representative for the Social Security Administration, a job he has held now for seven years.  

With his golden retriever guide dog, Casey, and special accessibility software, Kuntz believes there is little he can’t accomplish.

“I’m very proud to see where he’s gotten today,” Ray Kuntz said. “He’s making more money than I was when I retired – and he’s not done. He’s determined to get to supervisor, and if he keeps working at it, he’ll get there, too.”

Wade Kuntz will no doubt be waxing his skis soon in anticipation of Mt. Ashland opening up later this month. His dedication to continue doing what he loves despite his disabilities has not been easy throughout his life, but each time he glides down the slope, he remembers why he goes through the trouble.