If you are reading this entry to learn the ins and outs of the LiveWorkPlay trip to Washington, DC then you should head on over to our Facebook page. A picture says a thousand words, and we’ve got each day covered. If you believe it is more about the journey than the destination (the destination was great, by the way) then read on and enjoy this reflective blog by LiveWorkPlay Co-Leader Keenan Wellar.
LiveWorkPlay has a long history of supporting travel for our members, but the motivation and methods have changed over the years. In the beginning it was mainly about people with limited travel opportunities (many did have travel experience with family, but not with others) getting the support they needed to experience other parts of the world. And of there was also a lot of bonding between those in the group.
These days most members taking part in LiveWorkPlay-supported trips have already traveled many times, so their motivations (and interests) are much like they are for other citizens: they are excited to be “on the road” and to share the experience not only with those friends and acquaintances they’ve planned to travel with, but also those they meet along the way.
Like most “innovations” involved in the support of people with intellectual disabilities, progress often means finding ways to do things “less differently.” This is certainly the case with LiveWorkPlay travel support. We’ve shifted from organizing our own trips to joining up with tour groups for travel on the continent. For resort travel, we go to Club Med locations where there is always a very inclusive environment, with great attitudes from both staff and guests.
There have been more than 20 trips since 1999, and I’ve been a part of most of them, and I have noticed gradual yet dramatic changes. When you’ve never done something, you aren’t very good at it, and it is only human nature that other people make judgements about you because of that. In other words, when some of our members first started traveling, they needed a lot more help, because they didn’t know what to expect, and some observers tended to view this as incompetence, rather than lack of experience.
As LiveWorkPlay members have gained travel experiences and skills, they hold themselves differently, and other people see them differently. And for the record, more than 15 trips that required a passport, and the number of passports lost = zero. That’s about 200 times that individuals carried their own passport for a period of several days in times of travel stress. Never ask a LiveWorkPlay staff if the members are “allowed to carry their own passport” because it’s hard not to overreact to the question. We can’t help feel a little protective about their reputations – what does it take to earn the right to be respected for one’s abilities?
I am happy to confess that we’ve had some close calls. I dropped my passport in the airport and one of the members picked it up and gave it to me.
Other travelers often express a natural curiosity about any group of people, but these communications have almost always been respectful. And time and time again, some of the people we have met along the way have taken it upon themselves to say that a highlight of their trip had been the opportunity to socialize with LiveWorkPlay members. Other interesting confessions have come from those who observed over time that their thinking about the group changed once they came to see their capabilities instead of seeing a disability.
10 members have just returned from a 5-day Ottawa Valley Tours motor coach trip to Washington, DC. That brings to 5 the number of Ottawa Valley Tours trips enjoyed to date. This latest journey was three buses strong – a rolling community of more than 150 people from around the Ottawa area. We (ten members and two staff, Julie Kingstone and myself) shared the bus with others of course, but also meals, shows, and hotel lobbies (some of the best conversations happen while “waiting) and we all just generally “looked after each other.”
On each trip there are usually 1 or 2 people (sometimes individuals or maybe a couple traveling together) we meet that end up bonding particularly strongly with the LiveWorkPlay contingent. As the trip came to an end this time around, the number seemed to be more like a half dozen – these are people on a first name basis where there was strong mutuality developed in the relationship.
What I mean by that is these were not people who thought they were “helping out the people with intellectual disabilities.” They were fellow travelers enjoying each other’s company. By the end of the trip a lot of personal information was shared and there were serious offers about taking future trips on the same bus.
There have been some very touching stories over the years, and this trip was no exception. However, the most touching story of all is a bit different, because it comes from a complete stranger. Unfortunately, I don’t even know his name.
I first noticed him in the souvenir shop. This particular store featured the opportunity to have photos taken to give the appearance of addressing the press or attending to business in the Oval Office. A senior citizen (and obviously a tourist himself) I spotted him standing off to the side, assessing the situation. I pegged him right away as a former teacher. He stood there with a little smile on his face and I decided to leave him to his thoughts.
After the store we moved to a nearby street vendor, and there he was again! My instincts told me he was simply interested in our group, and was being respectful by not inserting himself into the situation. So, I let him off the hook and said hello.
“Oh, hi. Are you one of the leaders of this group?”
In a way, you could say that. Maybe servant leadership.
“Oh ha ha. Right right, I understand. Are these people all from the same group home?”
Nope nope, none of them live in a group home.
“I wondered about that, I didn’t think so, but then they all seemed to know each other.”
Right, most of them do know each other, just because they’ve traveled before, or because our organization supports different sorts of social gatherings in the community.
“I really didn’t think they were from a group home, or if they were, that there was something really different about it.”
“They just look…comfortable. Confident. Happy. Alive.”[Interrupted by a member who held out a variety of US bills and asked me if it all added up to $22, which it did]
“What do they do during the day?”
“What do they do…you know, do they go to some sort of a program?”
Oh, right. Well, with these individuals here, there is a bit of a mix between paid work, volunteerism, and post-secondary education. Some do all three of those things. Not to mention boyfriend and girlfriend time.
“Well, I think this is all just wonderful.”
Can I ask what is your interest?[Starts to speak and breaks down crying.]
I’m sorry, are you all right sir?
“Yes, yes, I’m fine, I just need a moment.”[The man gave me a little hug which I returned and it did not feel awkward].
“Well, I used to be a teacher, but what it’s really about is my brother and his son. He has a developmental disability. He’s an older adult now. I honestly don’t think in his entire adult life he’s had as much fun as your group had in the last ten minutes. I mean it. He lives in a group home and he doesn’t have a single friend. There’s no reason he couldn’t do any of the things these people are doing but it just wasn’t how things were done. We all thought it was for the best.”
“I’m sad for my nephew but mostly I’m crying because I’m happy. Seeing this gave me joy. I saw the White House but this was the best part of my trip.”[Fighting back my own tears, I just stood with him and watched as members continued to buy $5 hats and shirts, and yes, they were having fun]
“Do you think it’s too late for my nephew?”
No sir, I really don’t. And it’s all about the small things. A little bit of time doing something out in the community with someone who is not a staff member. Maybe just one afternoon or evening a week. And see where it goes from there. Whatever his interests are what is nearby in the community where he could get involved. It would be a huge step to look at living in this own place, but in my experience it starts with making a list of what would actually have to happen, and then just checking off the boxes. I’ve seen it happen for a lot of people.
“I’m going back to Florida and by gum my nephew is going to start having a life.”
I don’t have to tell you, I had a little tear in my eye watching that man walk off into the setting sun. In fact, my eyes are watering right now as I write this.
It’s a natural and positive development that I don’t spend as much face time with our members as I used to. From a selfish perspective, that’s what’s so great about the trips Yes, I return from the trips totally exhausted and feeling like I don’t need to have a conversation with anyone for about a month. But that passes quickly.
I’ve known some of our members for more than a decade and I love laughing at myself about how I used to hover over them on trips as though they might break. Here they were in 3 different hotels in 5 days with 5 different wake-up times (and there’s a lot to do to be ready when you are on a bus tour) and do you know how much time Julie and I spent setting alarm clocks and knocking on doors to get people ready in the morning? None! And with the exception of one pre-dinner nap that went long for a certain twosome, that’s also the number of times anyone in the group was late – none!
This to me is all very hopeful. Not that our members can learn and grow, that’s a given. But rather that the world around them can learn to be appreciative and welcoming, if given the opportunity. As all the segregation and separation of people with intellectual disabilities in schools, workplaces, sports, leisure, and neighbourhoods continues to fade (too slowly, but there is progress) I think the community will surprise us. Most people actually enjoy bettering themselves, and when people recognize a positive change of attitude in themselves, they feel good!
We hear this from our volunteers all the time – those are people who intentionally sought out the opportunity, so it’s perhaps not all that surprising that they are the type of people who are open to learning and sharing. But what is so encouraging to see from these travel experiences is that even people who did not seek it out often enjoy the experience of their own personal growth, and just like “LiveWorkPlay insiders” can learn to appreciate in a matter of days that our community is a better place when people with intellectual disabilities are a part of it.