In the late 1970s, Dee Duncan worked at a Santa Barbara facility for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The program gave its residents plenty of chances to get out into the world, offering vacation trips three times a year, and Duncan helped arrange many of them.
Still, when Thanksgiving and Christmas came around, some residents were always stuck. While most of the 200 or so people who lived at the facility went home to be with their families, a handful without family connections were left behind. Duncan realized this must be happening at facilities across the country and decided to do something about it. She drew on her small savings account and her eight years of experience traveling with these folks and launched New Directions Travel in 1985.
She began with a program she called Holiday Happiness, taking a group of about 15 people to a cabin in the local mountains. Today, New Directions takes people from across the country on tours, offering two at Thanksgiving, five at Christmas and many others throughout the year. “We have taken over 19,000 people to 61 different countries,” says Duncan, “and provide over $150,000 every year in scholarships for people that don’t have the funds to go.”
The nonprofit’s mission, however, is about more than globetrotting. “Our mission is way beyond the excitement, joy, education and of course the thrill that travel brings,” Duncan says. “Our mission is about changing the way the world views this population.”
To explain, she paints a picture of visitors to Disneyland encountering a group of 15 people with developmental disabilities, all dressed in orange shirts or red caps for easy identification, all lined up together and being ushered along by a handful of staff. “This gives you no accurate perception of who these folks are as individuals and how wonderful they are,” she says. “It’s a stereotyped image that gets created.”
New Directions works against these stereotypes by traveling in small groups and focusing on high-end hotels, restaurants and experiences such as horseback riding on the beach in Fiji, jet skiing around the island of Mykonos, helicopter rides around glaciers in Alaska and “anything that people might think this population wouldn’t likely do,” Duncan says. “We present the true picture of people with disabilities.”
This was evident almost from the outset. On an early trip to Fiji, as the staff at the hotel where the group had stayed turned out to say good-bye, one of them pulled aside someone from New Directions. She explained that, in Fijian culture, it was considered an embarrassment to have a family member with a disability, so these people were generally hidden away at home. “It has been really good for our island to have your people here,” the woman said. “The villagers have been talking, and where we used to be ashamed of them, we’re now ashamed of ourselves and we’re going to let them out of the houses.”
“That’s a big impact, but it happens in a million different ways on every tour, everywhere we go,” says Duncan. Of course, there’s an impact on the travelers as well.
One early traveler, Billy, had a mild developmental disability and had been working as a dish washer in a convalescent home – a job he didn’t like – for 20 years. He lived with his parents, who were basically shut-ins, so he had few other chances to leave home. A social worker who knew about Billy’s situation suggested that he go on a New Directions five-day tour. That trip led to his first girlfriend (who he met on the tour), his first dance, his first kiss and a decision to take a trip to Australia. “He had so many firsts. It just completely changed him and his world,” Duncan says.
Billy eventually changed jobs, moved into his own apartment and got married. “He started living life, and I still see him around town living life fully,” says Duncan, adding that this kind of dramatic change doesn’t happen to everyone, but it does happen.
New Directions supports travelers with a wide range of abilities, bringing trained volunteers and years of experience together to help everyone travel safely and enjoy the experience.
A variety of upcoming local, domestic and international tours are available, with destinations ranging from Disneyland, the Grand Canyon and New York City to the Bahamas, Ireland, Australia and Japan. Tour and scholarship information is available at newdirectionstravel.org.