How A Brand-New Virtual Travel Program Is Making World Travel Accessible For People With Disabilities

Photo: The Silver Center at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan
New Virtual Travel Program Makes International Adventures Possible For People With Special Needs
Contributor

Amanda Kauftheil never dreamed of traveling to Russia, where her mom Vera grew up — and certainly not in the middle of a global pandemic.

But this summer, she was able to tour Moscow and St. Petersburg through some creative virtual globetrotting, learning about Russian Hanukkah traditions, the history of ballet in Russia and even designing her own Russian Matryoshka nesting dolls.

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Kauftheil is part of the Silver Center for Special Needs Connections program at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, dedicated to building and nurturing an inclusive community for individuals of varying abilities.

The Silver Center serves people in their 20s and 30s with intellectual, developmental, and/or physical disabilities. Typically, the group of 15 adults would take weekly local outings to Governors Island, Rye Playland or Rhinebeck in New York, but the pandemic forced them to switch to virtual travel, which was a blessing in disguise, opening up opportunities they likely never would have had otherwise.

“Initially we just planned on doing it for a month,” says Hannah Badain, director of the Silver Center. “June is a month our group usually takes an overnight trip, and we were all going stir-crazy in our New York City apartments. Our June travels were a huge success and our group caught the travel bug — we’ve been traveling for eight months now, with no plans to slow down. This week marks our 33rd week of virtual traveling.”

Working with locals on the ground in each location, the group has been able to virtually visit Italy, Paris, Mexico, Greece, South Africa, Amsterdam, Israel, Hawaii, Japan, Argentina, Cuba, London, Australia and more.

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They learn local slang, explore regional cuisine, and have “walking tours” with local tour guides, such as in Rome, where the tour guide brought participants to the Jewish Quarter to see the stones in the ground that memorialized those lost in the Holocaust. They find many of their guides online through websites like Airbnb.

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“We are all stepping outside of our comfort zone and growing through these cross-cultural experiences,” Badain says. “We’ve had a few close encounters with edible insects. In Australia our bush guide used a stick to extract a termite from a tree and delighted in popping it in his mouth while we looked on in shock. Similarly, a culinary instructor in Mexico was very excited to show us the jar of garlic roasted crickets she had in her pantry.”

 

“My favorite was seeing what life is like in South Africa,” says David Robards, a Connections participant. They saw animals like elephants, lions and leopards on a virtual safari and met seals an penguins up close with their guide in Cape Town.

This month, they'll be taking a trip to China, focusing on the Chinese Lunar New Year and the upcoming 2022 Olympics in Beijing.

They plan to learn a classical Chinese dance and practice martial arts.

Their weekly visit with a New York museum educator will focus on Chinese artwork. A Valentine's Day outing will discuss love and friendship around the world and they'll also be virtually traveling to New Orleans for Mardis Gras.

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Amber Gibson is a freelance journalist specializing in travel, food, wine and wellness. Her works appears in Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Robb Report, Departures, Saveur, Bon Appétit, Fodor's and Hemispheres.