Virtual Travel Nurtures Relationships, Sparks Curiosity Amongst People With Disabilities

Wed, April 28, 2021

Omari wears a tie-dye shirt and stands in front of the welcome to Las Vegas signOmari Cohen and Ashley Smith both love to travel. The former is an experienced world traveler, while the latter is just beginning to experience group travel. Both have a disability and belong to Leisure Trax, a unique YAI travel program that carefully crafts enriching experiences for participants seeking adventure and independence. The program focuses on quality of life—rethinking what recreation looks like for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD)—with inclusion being in the forefront.

“Travel normalizes that everyone really deserves to get a break and get out of town and see things beyond their community. And not only does that have value for the person in growing their own awareness of what’s in the world, it can also allow caregivers a chance for respite,” said Senior Supervisor of Leisure Trax, Kathryn Leonard.

When the pandemic hit, it forced the program, like many others, to rethink how to keep providing the much-needed service to a community that often gets overlooked in discussions of self-empowerment through travel. Although first met with hesitation, the transition to Zoom trips has yielded some surprising outcomes: friendships that began virtually more than a year ago are still thriving today, and the community’s expansion of worldly knowledge is beyond what anyone could have fathomed. These undeniable pros make one thing clear: virtual travel is here to stay.

“We have totally changed the frequency of how often people have an opportunity to see one another,” said Leonard. “Seeing someone once a year on a trip versus seeing someone four times a week allows you to deepen your connection in a different way and just have more things to talk about. I think we have seen people grow their social networks within Zoom.”

Cohen, 47, is one of the participants whose heightened curiosity to see the world can be attributed to virtual trips. His thirst for knowledge and love of trivia have further expanded. For instance, during a recent online trip to Tanzania, he learned that Mount Kilimanjaro is the tallest mountain in Africa – a fact he proudly shares with a grin with anyone who asks.

“Virtual travel gives me happiness and something to do,” said Cohen. “I felt less alone because I had these trips to look forward to.”

The Bronx resident has been a member of Leisure Trax for 11 years. Pre-pandemic, his voyages took him on international trips to Italy and the Bahamas. In addition, he has also experienced national attractions such as whale watching in Alaska and visiting the U.S. Army Museum in Hawaii. The cruise enthusiast said he takes a “calm and cool” approach when embarking on his journeys and has no plans of stopping any time soon.

“I feel happier on the water and just getting away from land,” Cohen said. “I feel more independent when I am traveling and experiencing new places that I’ve never been to before.”

He hopes to check off some more places on his bucket list post-pandemic like New Orleans during Mardi Gras and Cleveland to visit the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Currently over 60 participants are enrolled in Leisure Trax. Members range in age between their 20s and 60s. Trips are funded in a variety of ways, including private donations and fundraising.

“The group knows each other very well now,” said Timothy Allan, Supervisor at Leisure Trax. “They know each other's interest and what each other likes, who likes to write in the group chat, who likes to answer using words or emojis. Everyone is so understanding about what other people need virtually and it’s been great to have such a positive group.”

Ashley wearing a dark blue coat is outside with snow in the background landscape. Ashley Smith, 29, of Queens, joined Leisure Trax two years ago in hopes of getting out of her comfort zone and meeting new people. Her first trip was to Philadelphia. Her second to Frost Valley, an overnight camp in the Catskills that serves as a home for YAI’s Mainstreaming at Camp.

“I was kind of nervous because I never left my mom for an overnight trip, but I wanted to be independent without my mom and make new friends,” said Smith.

Smith credits the virtual trips for helping her consider getting on an airplane for the first time and traveling to Disney World and Puerto Rico in the future.

“Getting on a plane virtually makes me want to get on one for real,” she said.

The travel industry was one of the hardest hit by the pandemic. According to U.S. Travel Association, since the beginning of March last year and through the end of 2020, the pandemic resulted in $492 billion in cumulative losses for the travel economy.

The crushing blow to the market altered how many offered excursions. Leisure Trax took the detour early on in the pandemic - switching the travel program into an all-virtual experience and rolling out its first online trip to Hawaii in April 2020. Since then, participants have “traveled” to numerous destinations, both local and international, and meet four times a week to explore new lands, getting a crash course for each destination.

“It’s such a cool space because it leverages this environment where we don’t have to be hierarchical and so it’s really like a community of us and it doesn’t have to be like here’s the staff,” said Leonard. “I will make a traveler a co-host on Zoom and so we are all members of the program and learning about a new place together. It really does feel like a community.”

Weekly themed trips have jetted them across South America, the Galapagos Islands, Mexico to swim with the dolphins, and most recently a trip to China to learn about panda bears.

screenshot of a person smiling (on right screen) on zoom call with many adorable pandas on left screen.

The group spent a Friday night with a nature travel guide who Zoomed in from Chengdu, China to teach them about the giant bear. The online experience was made possible by Airbnb. As part of its work to make travel more inclusive, last month the company rolled out a collection of 12 new online experiences designed by hosts with neurodiverse guests in mind.

“Our hope is these activities will help guests become more comfortable with a new activity or use them to connect with loved ones. Airbnb is committed to improving accessibility across our platform and we continue working toward our goal of making experiences as inclusive of as many needs as possible,” said Suzanne Edwards, Airbnb Head of Hosting Accessibility Standards.

“My hope is we can get back together, go on new trips, and travel and see new places together,” said Allan. “But being able to incorporate these aspects we’ve been able to use in the last year of long-lasting friendships, a travel community, ethical travel (learning about the places before we go there), are all equally important. I want to include putting the power in the traveler’s hand of what we are doing and where we are going.”