The key travel firms catering to travelers with all sorts of impairments
Americans with disabilities are the largest minority in the country, over 54 million persons. Yet until recently, and especially before passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, they were not well treated by the travel industry, and numerous vacation possibilities were effectively barred to them. And even when travel industries were friendly to people with disabilities, many times a lack of money destroyed a person's chance of taking part (a recent census survey found that 28 percent of people with a severe disability were below the poverty rate). With a growing, national sensitivity to their plight, reflected not merely in words but in legislation, the situation is today improving, though much remains to be done. Enforcement of the law is spotty, implementation is slow, and a great many travel facilities have not yet been adapted to the needs of our fellow citizens with impairments.
The key advance has been in the creation of travel organizations and tour companies for those with disabilities, a movement that is still in its very earliest years. These fledgling firms, many of them actually headed by persons who themselves are affected by disabilities, have already enabled thousands of others to enjoy the rewards of travel, and they are capable of assisting even greater numbers if their existence becomes known. Below are short-cuts to specialized listings for disabled travelers:
City and adventure tours
SEARCH BEYOND ADVENTURES, INC.
4603 Bloomington Avenue
Minneapolis, MN 55407
phone 800/800-9979 (in Mpls.-St. Paul area call 612/721-2800)
Kailash Dhaksinamurthi founded Search Beyond Adventures in 1979 as a wilderness adventure company specializing in the developmentally challenged and mobility impaired traveler. Over the years, however, S.B.A. has truly become a worldwide tour operator, reaching destinations across the globe, from Iceland to Vietnam.
Aside from its large repertoire of destinations and tours, the company's forte is its ability to match each disabled traveler with just the right-sized group--the appropriate staff-to-vacationer ratio--to suit their needs and level of independence. Group sizes range from 4 to 30 travelers, but the staff to vacationer ratios only range from 1:2 to 1:4.
It is crucial to understand, however, that at SBA travelers are not grouped according to disability, but rather according to how much individual attention they require, and how mobile they are. In other words, there is no differentiation between the blind, the hearing impaired, the developmentally impaired, and the mobility impaired, etc; differentiation is made based on level of mobility and overall independence.
The pros and cons to this approach are considerable. The downside is that a traveler with one set of needs may not wish to be lumped indiscriminately in a group of people with different needs; e.g., a visually impaired traveler may find it pointless and inconvenient to be the only visually impaired person in a group of mobility impaired travelers.
On the other hand, a visually impaired traveler could opt for a group with a 1:1 ratio, thus acquiring the two services most needed by a blind traveler: an individual guide and a good descriptor.
The bottom line: no matter what your needs are, Search Beyond Adventures can accommodate you with the appropriate ratio, so that even someone demanding constant one-on-one attention can participate in group travel.
Those looking to travel with SBA will eventually pass a screening, in which the Special Assistance coordinator will determine how much special attention traveler requires, and how mobile the traveler is. The Special Assistance coordinator will then suggest the appropriate tour category.
Search Beyond launches about 175 all-inclusive tours each year, the majority of which are of the "Regular Tours" category, (that is, a 1:4 staff-vacationer ratio for ambulatory travelers). Among the U.S. tours, the most popular destinations are Florida and California, (which often includes time at either Disney World or Disneyland), and the Music City tours, which travel to Memphis, Nashville, Branson and New Orleans. Plenty of the New England and Mid Atlantic states are available, as well as Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Alaska, and Hawaii. Camping trips, cruises, and baseball game outings are also available, as well as a number of international trips to Europe, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, the Fiji Islands, Sri Lanka and Africa. The shortest tours are four days long, the longest are 11 days. Prices vary, depending on the length of the trip, the destination, and the category.
Some examples: a three-day "football tour" to Boston, Florida or St. Paul, Minnesota, with visits to games and local attractions for just $400; a five-day Disney trip will start at $565 land-only. The lower the staff-vacationer ratio, the higher the price: so a six-day "Special Assistance" Disney/Orlando trip is $2,030 if departing from New York. All tours are all inclusive. To order its free 18-page full color catalogue and a list of departure prices, send an e-mail them or call its toll free number.
Has arranged (for nearly 50 years) for persons with disabilities to travel to Lourdes and other Catholic shrines in Europe. Each fall (September 14 to 23 in 2003), it operates a large group trip (usually about 300 people) for persons with disabilities going to Lourdes. Accompanying the group are doctors, nurses, and paramedics. According to former manager Marie Gehringer, the key aspect of these journeys is the balm and comfort they bring to participants. "The spiritual healing is unbelievable," she reports. "On one recent trip we had a 25-year-old man who was dying of a brain tumor. Throughout the trip, he came out of himself, pushing those who were in wheelchairs, helping the blind visitors. He later remarked, before he died, that the trip had helped him come to peace with himself." Prices for the Lourdes pilgrimage start at $1,595 with flights from New York, $1,695 from Washington, D.C., $1,765 from Chicago, and $1,895 including air from San Francisco.
Outdoor vacations that mix able-bodied and disabled travelers
WILDERNESS INQUIRY808 14th Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55414-1516
phone/TTY 800/728-0719, fax 612/676-9401
Unlike the other organizations that we've listed in this article thus far, the primary focus of Wilderness Inquiry is to integrate tourists with disabilities with the able-bodied for vacations in which everyone learns about nature and each other. Wilderness Inquiry has hosted people of all levels and types of disabilities, including quadriplegics, deaf persons, blind persons, and the developmentally disabled. (A past kayaking trip, for example, to Isle Royal in Lake Superior was composed of three staff members, four able-bodied participants, a camper with cerebral palsy, a blind person, a person with a severe heart condition and another who had sustained a traumatic brain injury). The trips are rugged, yet relaxed in their pace, almost all involving camping. Participants are expected to help out with the daily chores (cooking, pitching tents, cleaning up, etc.) according to their abilities. The organization tries to put together groups in which the ability levels are balanced, to ensure that there is no undue burden on any of the participants.
Most of Wilderness Inquiry's trips are reasonably priced, averaging $100 a day (or less), which covers all meals, equipment, instruction and staff. Popular ventures include a skiing and dog sledding trip in Northern Minnesota, a six-day canoeing trip through the Florida Everglades (including a visit to Shark Valley Nature Preserve with a lecture by a noted naturalist), a canoe trip through the Canyonlands and a 7 day "Lewis and Clark" canoe trip, which followed the famed explorers route down the Missouri River. In addition, Wilderness Inquiry sponsors a few international outings every year, to destinations such as Costa Rica and Australia.
JUBILEE SAILING TRUST
Woolston, Southampton SO19 7GB
phone 011-23-8044-9108, fax 011-23-8044-9145
A mix of able-bodied and disabled passengers regularly embark on sailing adventures aboard the "Tenacious" and the "Lord Nelson," two huge 19th century style vessels. From afar these ships appear to be no different than the historic ones that have been turned into museums in the U.S. But the design of "Tenacious" and "Lord Nelson" (each of which were built within the last twenty years) have adaptations for persons with disabilities, including flat, wide decks that are wheelchair-friendly, lifts between decks for those who cannot negotiate steps or ladders, extra-large showers, and signs in Braille. And clientele are not just passengers aboard a cruise with Jubilee. Some 40 passengers (a maximum of 20 may have disabilities) actually become crewmembers on the ships, and each person must keep a four-hour watch every 16 hours on the high seas. Crewmembers are not expected to have any background as sailors, and will be taught how to set, stow, and brace the sails, tie knots, and steer the ship. Also, one hour each morning is set aside to clean the ship, and all are expected to help out.
Most participants with disabilities use wheelchairs, but a variety of people with disabilities take part. There are about 60 different trips offered each year ranging from four days to four weeks. Summer sailings call at the major British and French ports; in winter the ships sail to the Canary Islands and the Caribbean. Trips start at $750; financial assistance is available. Prices are kept low in large part due to donations and corporate sponsors.
Helpful travel agents
ACCESS ADVENTURES206 Chestnut Ridge Road
Rochester, New York 14624
Another specialist in customized itineraries for a broad variety of handicapped travelers, Access Adventures plans vacations for 500 to 600 persons per year. It is owned and operated by a determined former director of a rehabilitation center, Deborah Lisena-Tyo, who aims to make the entire globe accessible.
"I never say no," she says. "It's always 'no problem', or 'we'll figure it out.' I don't want to reinforce anyone's fears. I use my rehab counseling skills as much as my travel agent skills." Recently, she planned a trip for a paraplegic customer wanting to visit his childhood home in India--a tough assignment, she admits, but not one that she'd turn down. Around the same time, she arranged a trip for a woman with a circulatory disorder--she could not stand or sit for more than two hours at a time, but wanted to take her family to Australia. Ms. Lissena-Tyo was able to arrange for Qantas to provide the use of five seats at a reasonable, discounted price. This allowed her to lie down for a good part of the flight. Once "Down Under," the family traveled in an oversized station wagon, booked by Access, that once again accommodated the client's special needs.
Occasionally (usually by special request only), Access does arrange group tours, although these tend to be for local groups in upstate New York. One summer, it arranged for the tenants of a "head injuries group home" to go to Cape Cod for a week. Access will locate nearby hotel beds for some of the travelers, find chefs to prepare "ground food" meals, and utilize a Cape Cod "independent living center" for such further help as the group may need. Customized "Day Trip Adventures" to sites such as Niagara Falls, the Stratford and Shaw Festivals in Canada.
An expert in cruises (and a personal friend of my wife for many years), Ms. Yates' greatest triumph was recently arranging a cruise to Bermuda for two 94-year-old passengers, who apparently had a fine time. The veteran herself of many cruises, and a former executive with a mental health organization, Ms. Yates specializes in the cruise needs of a wide variety of persons with disabilities, and in the similar needs of elderly persons.
SOCIETY FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF TRAVEL BY THE HANDICAPPED347 Fifth Avenue
New York, New York 10016
For disabilities that are not described in the foregoing discussion, travelers are always well-advised to contact The Society for the Advancement of Travel by the Handicapped ("S.A.T.H."), whose experts can usually suggest a source of assistance. Murray Vidockler, founder and funder of S.A.T.H., is one of the great human beings of the travel industry, and he is ably assisted by Peter Shaw-Lawrence, the fiery advocate for those with disabilites who is treasurer of the organization. In recent years, S.A.T.H. has begun publication of a periodical magazine for travelers with disabilities, called "Open World," that has quickly reached a high professional level and is absorbing to read, in addition to carrying many fact-filled, usable articles and advertisements on travel by the handicapped. Subscriptions in the U.S. and its possessions are $13 per year, and you can order one free issue online. For subscribers in Canada and all foreign countries, add $8. Checks should be made payable to SATH Publications.
FLYING WHEELS TRAVEL SERVICE143 West Bridge
Owatonna, MN 55060
phone 507/451-5005, fax 507/451-1685
Serves more than 500 mobility-impaired travelers a year. Destinations are always inspected in advance by a staff member, and trips operated in association with tour companies at the destination. The key to a successful trip, says president and founder, Barbara Jacobson, is attitude at the destination as much as accessibility; in many nations, disabilities are regarded with loathing, the blind or mobility-impaired hidden out of sight or made into beggars, so that travelers are confronted by the prejudices of the cultures they visit, and may have to deal with the emotional stresses that result. Attitude in turn leads to inaccessibility, the failure by the host nation to create access for those with disabilities. "If you want to go to Syria or Egypt (for example), you're going to get lifted." Flying Wheels recommends travelers allow three months for the planning of a trip, so that they can fully explore with the client the different features of each location.
"The market is rapidly changing," says Ms Jacobson, referring to progress in the field." When we began in 1970, we could only handle escorted domestic tours, primarily to Hawaii and Disneyland. Now we go to all parts of the globe, offer cruises and customized itineraries." Ever since passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, she points out, domestic travel in particular has been much less stressful, as more and more hotels and restaurants make their facilities accessible.
SUNSET TRAVEL1580 Orchard St.
Santa Rosa, CA 95404
phone 707/887-7905 or fax 707/542-6274
In addition to operating tours of the wine country of northern California, and tours for gay and lesbian travelers to anywhere, Sunset provides customized itineraries for mobility-impaired persons, both domestic and international, and has done so for the last 11 years. Its founder, Linda Reitzell, was herself disabled by a head on collision in 1990. Her approach, from our own conversations with her, seems highly professional but pleasant.
Founded by Howard McCoy in 1985 to provide travel opportunities for people who were mobility-impaired. "We're not an able-bodied travel agency that sets up a wing to attract more business," he explains. "This is all we've ever done in travel."
According to Howard, what sets his company apart is that he has also remained personally committed to his original goals. Staff members from Accessible Journeys check out all of the sites, hotels and modes of transportation. "Every place we send visitors to we've been. We do all the site inspections and all the hotel inspections, and can tell people what to expect. For example, a visitor to India who wants to visit the Taj Mahal can expect to navigate 21 very tall steps up to the first level. We hire porters to lift people in their wheelchairs up the steps. We tell people before they take their trips that this is basically the only way to see that site, so there are no surprises later on-and then they can either book the tour or not. Whatever they are comfortable with."
Accessible Journeys offers more than 40 different international tours and cruises a year and half a dozen domestic ones, many of which are then personally accompanied by Mr. McCoy. His clients come from all over the English-speaking world, and while he can provide them with airfare to the starting place of the tours, he finds that most people prefer to use frequent flyer miles, or wait for special deals. The company also creates customized itineraries for those desiring them, and finds licensed companions for passengers needing such assistance.
WHEEL COACH SERVICES, INC.Sion Farm Commercial Center B7
Christiansted, St. Croix
U.S. Virgin Islands 00820
phone 340/719-9335, fax 340/773-1414
Travelers with disabilities including dialysis needs, restricted movement, or just those who are slow walkers can enjoy a tour of the beautiful island of St. Croix by way of Wheel Coach Services. Wheel Coach does not usually arrange for entire vacations. Instead, it specializes in tours of the island (usually four hours long, costing $55 for those in wheelchairs, $45 for companions). Each vehicle can fit only two or three wheelchairs, so the exact itinerary is up to the customers. Usually the tour involves a scenic drive, and visits to a rum factory, a sugar plantation, and a botanical gardens. Wheel Coach can also make individualized arrangements for accessible activities for the disabled and equipment rentals.
Specialists in Australia
On his first day in Australia, Andy Huesing, who has a spinal cord injury, met a gentleman crossing the street named Rod Gothe. Both men had just arrived Down Under, and both were in wheelchairs. Both men had also noticed, on their arrival, the need for a company that would service travelers with disabilities. "So we set out on our own," says Huesing, "literally rolling from hotel to hotel, venue to venue, finding the best places to form the foundation of an accessible tour."
Today, NeverLand Adventures boasts four to five group tours to Australia and New Zealand a year, and is recognized by the Australian Tourist Commission as the #1 specialist for disabled travelers to Australia. While the company is angled towards travelers with mobility impairments, its owners assure us that their "ultimate goal is to service as many types of people as possible." Clients have included people who are both visually and hearing impaired, and travelers with spinal cord injuries, M.S., M.D., cerebral palsy, Lou Gehrig's disease, spina bifida, brittle bone disease, diabetes, cancer, and slow walkers.
To co-owner and founder Andy Huesing, the integrity of the holiday is a key concern. "There is a misconception that in order for a trip to be accessible it has to sacrifice a lot," says Huesing. "That was our biggest challenge. We wanted no compromises on our trips. We wanted our customers to be as free as possible on our trips, without the usual entanglements of disabled travel. This part is the most fun for me--seeing quadriplegics swimming in the Great Barrier Reef, people with M.S. riding camels in the outback, and 86-year-old women bungee jumping!" It is no wonder the company is named NeverLand Adventures: "In the Peter Pan mythos, NeverLand was a place of freedom and adventure where you never grew old--very in line with or philosophies," says Huesing.
Groups are never larger than 12 customers, served by two or three staff and a bus driver. The company offers two-week tours in Australia and New Zealand starting at $3,400, and this includes absolutely everything except your flight to Australia: all transportation within Australia, hotels, meals, activities, motorcoach, scuba, and whatever else you do. For those wishing to experience the Outback, including Ayers Rock and Alice Springs, NeverLand offers a three-week Outback tour for $4,500, not including airfare. In addition, NeverLand Adventures plans to begin bringing Aussies to the U.S. in the near future.
Offers a variety of travel services for people with disabilities visiting Australia. Travel packages are usually customized based on type of disability and what the traveler would like to see. SeeMore arranges for accommodations, airport transfers, scooter and wheelchair rentals, transportation, and all kinds of tours (wine tasting tours are one of its specialties) to all parts of Australia. SeeMore also offers guided tours that cost as little as $25 for half-day or $35 for full-day itineraries, based on ten people taking part.
Experts in the American West
P.O. Box 499
Victor, ID 83455
An idealistic, non-profit group that offers educational and environmentally-proper tours of the American West. Its director, Clint Gross, was one of the early white water river runners. When rafting became too commercial for his tastes, and tourism to the West became saturated with tour companies that had "no empathy for the indigenous peoples and with the land itself," Mr. Gross left the travel business. A few years later, a quadriplegic friend of his came to visit, and Mr. Gross was intrigued about forming a tour company for persons with ambulatory disorders--slow walkers and persons needing wheelchairs.
He has, he says, a "passion" for teaching people the natural and human history of the American West, and wants his tours to be different from the standard. "I want people to be aware of where they've been. I detest the motor coach companies. Their idea of seeing Yellowstone is to breeze in from one side and go out the other--an average stay of five hours! When you ask the tourists afterwards where they've been, they have to re-read their postcards. They don't remember." On his tours, a maximum of 11 passengers form the group that visits the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, the South West, and "other special areas of the American West." Tours are usually about eight to ten days each, traveling at a leisurely pace to "soak up the sights," as Mr. Gross offers a running commentary on the history of the location.
Access Tours runs four or five scheduled departures a year, and also will do custom itineraries for groups of six people or more. They've been in business since 1989.
HANDICAPPED SCUBA ASSOCIATION INTERNATIONAL1104 El Prado, San Clemente, CA 92672
Trains scuba instructors around the world in how to teach and dive with mobility impaired divers. In addition, the H.S.A. offers two or three group tours a year, for approximately 11 handicapped participants each. The trips are reasonably priced: The 2003 trip to Bonaire, for example, cost $920 for six days of diving and include all dives,hotels and ground transportation to and from the airport. For those who wish to travel on their own, the HSA provides, free of charges, a well researched "resort evaluation program". They have lists of scuba resorts, in almost all the major destinations, ranked by the accessibility of hotel facilities (i.e. roll-in showers, wide enough doors, etc.), and the expertise of the diving staff in dealing with divers with disabilities. The list is available on the organization's Web site, or you can call and someone will send it to you free of charge.
Lift-equipped vans and scooter rentals
WHEELCHAIR GETAWAYSPO Box 605
Versailles, KY 40383
The Hertz or Avis of the wheelchair set, this company rents lift-equipped vans and mini-vans with hand-controls (when specially requested). Most of Wheelchair Getaway's vehicles have either raised roofs or lowered floors, four-point wheelchair tie down with seat belts and power steering, locks and windows. Franchises are in Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington State, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C. While the company does not provide drivers or guides, the owners of their franchises, according to president Richard Gatewood, are knowledgeable in the needs of mobility impaired travelers and happy to advise on local restaurants and recreational facilities. The company was founded in 1989.
SCOOTAROUND, INC.584 Pembina Highway, Suite 208
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, R3M 3X7
phone 888/441-7575 or 204/982-0657, fax 204/478-1172
It all began when my father had a stroke," explained co-owner Lee Meagher. "We wanted to travel and not have to bring his scooter with us, but we found it near impossible to find scooters to rent. There's rarely a category for them in the yellow pages, and the companies that do rent them, often don't advertise it. They concentrate on sales and maintenance. So you really have to do a lot to find them." In the course of their travels, she, her father and her brother, were able, through laborious research, to find scooters in every city they wanted to visit. Not wanting to let their hard-won information go to waste, and recognizing that there must be many others in the same situation, they decided to found ScootAround. Currently, ScootAround serves as a network of scooter-rental companies in every major tourist and business destination in the United States and Canada. There are some 500 cities on its roster, including New York, Detroit, Montreal, Washington, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Honolulu, Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Minneapolis, and even San Juan, Puerto Rico, Amsterdam, and several cities in France. The company rates start at $110 for a three-day rental (it varies by location). In addition to scooters, it deals in manual and electric wheelchair rentals.
MOBILITY INTERNATIONAL USAPO Box 10767
Eugene, OR 97440
phone 541/343-1284, fax 541/343-6812
Mobility International manages the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange. Its stated goals are to "work to educate people with disabilities and disability related organizations about international educational exchange opportunities ... and community and volunteer service programs." What does this mean? Well, if you or someone you know who has a physical disability, wants to go abroad to study (i.e. taking a course at a distant University), for work or to volunteer, M.I. will research the facilities of whatever institution you're interested in, free of charge. Want to do an exchange program? Call M.I. first--it can give you in-depth information on all the programs that are out there, and which best facilitate individuals with disabilities. Additionally, M.I. sponsors cultural exchanges themselves with the goals of "leadership training, community service, cross cultural experiential learning and advocacy for the rights and inclusion of persons with disabilities." M.I. publishes a comprehensive guide called "A World of Options" which describes everything "from spending a year as a high school student in Spain, to receiving on-the-job training in Denmark; from volunteering with grassroots organizations in Mexico, to being a college student studying in France; to becoming a Fulbright scholar in Ghana." To learn more, visit its informative Web site.
In 2000, Susan Sygall, foudner of M.I., received the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, commonly known as the "genius grant."
Skiing and wilderness trips for persons with multiple sclerosis
Adventures Within is a small non-profit organization that arranges skiing and outdoors trips for people affected with Multiple Sclerosis. Charlotte Robinson, director of Adventures Within, founded the organization soon after she was diagnosed with MS at the age of 26. Considering 40 percent of participants are repeat customers, this operation certainly seems to offer quality programs. Price is one reason these programs are so popular. Rates for a five-day ski vacation at the Breckenridge Resort in the Colorado Rockies, including special ski equipment rentals, private lessons, lodgings, and nearly all meals, cost just $425 per person. Transportation to Breckenridge is not included, however. Four to five-day outdoors trips in the summer (canoeing, camping, horseback riding, rock climbing, etc.) are also reasonable, costing between $375 and $425.
Epic Enabled specializes in safari-style visits to South Africa for people in wheelchairs and those otherwise mobility impaired. Small groups (usually four to 12 people) tour through beautifully preserved spots such as Kruger National Park in a spacious Mercedes truck that is fully equipped for wheelchairs and people with disabilities. Accommodations during tours are tents, cottages, and rustic bungalows, and participants are expected to help out with washing dishes, building campfires, and other chores. In exchange for your work, prices are kept very low. An eight-day tour of Kruger National Park, including transfers to and from the airport in Johannesburg, three meals a day, and all entrance fees, starts at $825 per person. Day tours of Johannesburg and Cape Town start at $25 and $45, respectively. Each of Epic Enabled's tours has several opportunities to get out, see the beauty of South Africa, and get an up-close look at some of the world's most amazing wildlife.
For travelers with visual impairments
We know of two major companies set up to help visually impaired travelers. Both are well-established and well-respected operators, and we detail their programs below.
A Division of Directions Unlimited
123 Green Lane
Bedford Hills, New York 10507
phone 914/241-1700 or 800/533-5343
Lois Bonanni has headed Accessible Tours since 1982, shortly after her son became visually impaired. She has arranged both domestic trips and safaris in Africa, visits trans-Atlantic to Europe and trans-continental to Colorado. She has considerable confidence in the future of such travel by those with disabilities, now that hotel and cruise lines have finally begun setting aside rooms and facilities specially designed for their needs. In addition, travel needn't be more expensive for persons with disabilities, she believes. That's because U.S. hotels must now conform to federally-mandated standards, and provide facilities on a non-discriminatory basis. On occasion, Ms. Bonnani also plans and personally accompanies group tours to Europe with 10 to 12 visually impaired travelers.
The innovative Campanian Society offers tours that rely not on sight but the other four senses, especially the sense of touch. The tour company visits the monuments of Washington, DC, the Ghetty Museum in Los Angeles and Museum of Modern Art in New York, sandwich glass factories in Cape Cod, the beaches of Key West, the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, and anywhere else that permits visually impaired tourists to "see" the exhibits with their hands. The company also plans to offer trips to the aural Las Vegas (ca-ching!) and to San Francisco's Wine Country, where travelers only need their taste buds. The Campanian Society offers seven to eight group tours per year, of about 12 visually impaired travelers and their families each, and can also arrange individualized tour packages. Tours generally include first class hotel accommodations, but do not include airfare. However, the Campanian society does assist its blind constituents in arriving safely at the destination. A six-night trip will cost an average of $2,500-not cheap, but worthy of consideration as this is the only tour company of this kind (that we know of, at least).
For travelers with developmental disabilities
There are six major tour operators who have been offering caring, well-organized tours for adults with developmental disabilities for decades (in some cases). We profile these fine organizations below.
893 Amsterdam Avenue
New York, NY 10025
phone 212/222-9575 or 888/222-9575 (from outside New York); fax 212/222-9768
Given the breadth of its interests and the remarkable scope of its destinations, this is the "Club Med" of travel for the developmentally disabled. Participants whale watch on Cape Cod, attend Broadway shows, visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, gamble in Atlantic City, make pilgrimages to Graceland, ride horses and more. International excursions ran this year to Puerto Rico and Europe. My personal favorite among their activities is "Make a Movie," when participants gather together to write a script, then act in the film. Professional film-makers are brought in to do the actual filming and a premiere party is later held to screen the completed film. "Sproutstock" is a take-off on Woodstock, an annual weekend music festival. The young man with Downs Syndrome who appeared in the TV drama, "Life Goes On," appeared in 1998 with his own rock and roll band.
Sprout is rightly proud of its safety record--leaders undergo rigorous training, and less-experienced group leaders are always paired with those who have worked a few trips before. A single drawback: all departures are from New York City, New Paltz, NY, and Bridgeport, CT, Carteret, NJ, and participants must somehow manage to travel on their own to these areas, without assistance from Sprout. All trips make use of a 15-passenger van accommodating 10 participants and three Sprout leaders. Participants must have "high to moderate" functioning levels, be ambulatory, and possess full eyesight and hearing. Other slower and less intense trips are operated for elderly travelers who are developmentally disabled and others who want a slower pace.
5276 Hollister Avenue, #207
Santa Barbara, California 93111
phone 888-967-2841 or 805/967-2841, fax 805/964-7344.
Web site: newdirectionstravel.com/
A non-profit organization, New Directions arranges "vacations with dignity" for the developmentally disabled, to "increase understanding and appreciation of such people by integrating them into society." Arranges group tours to major tourist destinations around the world (Jamaica, Hawaii, Europe, Las Vegas, Fiji) that are in all ways comparable to the tours offered to average travelers, and involve no stigma to the participant, like the stereotyped image of "all wearing matching t-shirts and holding onto a rope," in the words of the group's former assistant director, Antonio Daniel. As most of New Directions' passengers come from institutional settings, the organization makes a major effort to give them as much freedom of choice on their vacations as possible. Room service or dinner with the group, an afternoon of snorkeling or shopping or sunbathing, sleeping in or jumping up to greet the dawn---all options are available, and the fact of choice can be a welcome respite from the more regimented life of group homes and institutions. The vacations, according to New Directions, have a lasting effect on their clients. Counselors and therapists report increased self-esteem, and a marked decrease in behavioral problems for months after their trips.
The organization was founded 18 years ago by Dee Duncan, a counselor at a residential care facility. It has grown steadily over the years and now offers approximately 40 tours a year. Most trips accommodate eight to 20 persons, and this year's offerings include vacationing at a California dude ranch, touring Hawaii, and the "Holiday Happiness Trip"--four days in Disneyland at Christmas for persons without families. While the trips are not always inexpensive, they cost more to operate than the client pays. New Directions offers scholarships to all clients and can assist in finding regional subsidies.
PEOPLE AND PLACES
76 Riley St.
East Aurora, NY 14052
phone 716/937-1813 or fax 716/937-1814
Tours for adults with developmental disabilities, with 100 widely-varied departures a year, for an average of eight persons on each departure. Escorts are all volunteers with experience in the mental health field, usually as social workers, nurses or therapists. Participants supply full profiles of their health and needs on the application form, so that escorts can deal with such emergencies as might arise. The form can be requested by phone or by visiting the website.
The company has been in business for 27 years, and publishes a handsome, 60-page catalogue.
SUNDIAL SPECIAL VACATIONS
2609 Highway 101 N., Suite 103
Seaside, OR 97138
phone 800/547-9198 or 503/738-3324, or fax 503/738-3369
Operating for the past 34 years, this is the one not-for-profit company known to me that specializes in tours for developmentally disabled adults. It is remarkably active, and sends out an average of two or three tours of 30 to 35 persons a month, primarily to theme parks in domestic locations: Disneyland and Disney World, Universal Studios, Hershey Park, Branson, and western dude ranches. More recently, a number of international trips--cruises to Mexico and Alaska, Montreal and Quebec, a safari in Kenya, and the British Isles--have been attempted. Tours are each led by at least one paid employee and a staff of volunteers, many from the mental health field, and participants are arranged into groups by their levels of "self-care." "Tours for higher functioning individuals" have a ratio of one escort per every seven travelers and are for those "who can care for personal needs without reminders." The rest have a higher ratio of escorts, one to five, and are for those who may need "reminders to care for their personal needs."
"We do this not from the pocket book but from the heart. This is not a money maker," says owner Patricia Conner, who has a consistent record (mentioned by other companies in the field) in keeping costs low for her clients. Funds for the tours come entirely from private sources--especially from parents of the mentally disabled individual. More than 60% of all clients, according to Sundial, are "returnees," a reflection of the general satisfaction with these tours.
THE GUIDED TOUR
7900 Old York Road, Suite 114-B
Elkins Park, PA 19027-2339
phone 1-800-783-5841 or 215/782-1370
This is one of the largest and most diversified tour operators specializing in the developmentally challenged traveler: 40 part-time, fully licensed social workers, therapeutic recreators, and direct care personnel, along with Irv Segal and his family, operate 64 trips a year, servicing approximately 1,000 clients. TGT's size, however, does not compromise its quality; in fact, while most services like this one are staffed primarily by volunteers, TGT distinguishes itself by employing only paid professionals in the human services field, many of whom have worked for TGT for upwards of 15 years. In addition, TGT guarantees individual attention: the ratio staffers to clients is always 1:3, and should a person have to travel to a destination alone, a staff person is arranged to meet the individual at that destination.
TGT offers a wide array of destinations and activities. Three of the most popular programs offered by The Guided Tour include a stay at the Jersey Shore, Camp Lee Mar, or a visit to Walt Disney World. The Shore program, in operation since 1981, is run by eight staff members, and hosts 13 to 14 participants in a house in Ventnor, New Jersey, three blocks from Atlantic City and eight houses from the beach. The program runs from June to mid-September, and in September guests attend the Miss America festivities.
Camp Lee Mar, in Lackawaxen, PA, was purchased by The Guided Tour in 1994, and since then it has served as a summer camp for persons with developmental challenges, ages 5 to 21. The camp is fully air-conditioned, and aims to combine recreation with academics, including speech therapy, perceptual training, computers, and daily living skills. From September through June, the camp is an adult resort.
Other tour locations include Europe, Mexico, Hawaii, the Jersey Shore, Walt Disney World, Amish country, Iceland, and the Pocono Mountains. Activities include concerts, dances, cruises, and sightseeing, (special accommodations are made for mobility impaired persons).
Above all, The Guided Tour aims to provide vacations with dignity, as other tour operators in this category do. For example, travelers are taught how to manage their own travel budgets, and Mr. Segal always chooses restaurants where his clients will be allowed to sit where they want and eat like everyone else.
The Guided Tour became a full-time, year-round operation in 1972, after Segal left his post as director of the Ronald B. Nipon Association, one of America's first recreation and socialization programs for adults with developmental challenges. Mr. Segal was formerly the director of the Association for Developmental Disabilities/Young Adult Group, and more recently served as chairman of S.A.T.H.-the Society for the Advancement of Travel for the Handicapped.
P.O. Box 10885
Eugene, OR 97440 USA
phone 800/686-1013, fax 541/465-9355
A quality organization that has been featured in stories in nationally respected newspapers such as "The Oregonian" and "The Los Angeles Times," Trips Inc. offers vacations for people with developmental disabilities to destinations like Disney World, San Diego, baseball's spring training in Arizona, Washington D.C., Australia, Nashville, Las Vegas, and New Orleans. There are also several road trips that leave from Portland, Oregon, bound for Seattle, central Oregon, or other reasonably close vacation spots. Trips Inc's background is in special education (it is not a travel operator that switched to the developmentally disabled market) so chaperones, trip organizers, and leaders are well-versed in the special needs of clients. When flying is required, the price of airfare from the Northwest (usually valid from Seattle, San Francisco, or Portland) is included in the rates. For example, an eight-day vacation to Disney World and a Disney Cruise cost $3,100 per person, including air from the West Coast, and a six-day vacation to San Diego (with visits to SeaWorld and the city's famous zoo), cost $1,795, also with air included. Of course if a passenger is flying from elsewhere, or does not need air at all, prices will vary. The road trips seem to be the most budget-friendly options. A six-day camping trip to Lake Billy Chinook in central Oregon costs $895, and a five-day visit to Seattle costs $995. A chaperone to traveler ratio of 1:3 or 1:4 is maintained on each trip, and groups average about 20 people total.