Getting around

A specialized tour operator takes disabled Israelis to exotic locations. The only obstacle is the cost.

world88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
An exotic traveler might pass a vacation romping through rice paddies in China, riding elephants in Thailand or befriending the koalas and kangaroos of Australia. Even the able-bodied might find these excursions challenging, but wheelchair-bound Israelis are now enjoying these worldwide adventures thanks to the initiative of one Israeli tour operator. With a lot of creativity and perseverance, Daniel Steinberg has created a niche in the operation of tours for Israelis with physical disabilities. From the remote corners of South America and the peaks of the Canadian Rockies to the conventions of Europe and the allures of the Far East, his tours leave almost no region unexplored. Having just returned from a trip to Brazil and Argentina, Steinberg is already preparing to lead two more trips during the year, each of which takes almost 12 months to prepare. Steinberg's goal is to ensure that group members see everything that an able-bodied person would be able to view, and therefore limits his trips almost exclusively to those confined to a wheelchair. "I cannot mix people together and take blind people along with people in a wheelchair. The attractions for them will be very different," he explains. Given the availability of specially adapted hotel rooms, each tour can include only four or five people completely confined to a wheelchair and a slightly larger number of others whose movement is partially impaired. Each participant is required to travel with a companion (in some cases, a husband and wife team), and Steinberg also hires group helpers from the local community to help navigate the cultural and physical terrains. Social worker Aliza Cohen suffers from a debilitating disease that forces her to alternate between crutches and a wheelchair. The adventures she has undergone are more exotic than those experienced by most regular tour groups. "When we were in China, we convinced our guide to take us to a village so we could talk to people that were working in the fields," she says. "It was really something." The idea to run trips for individuals with disabilities began with a visit from a non-Jewish physically disabled tour group from England in the early 1980s. "This was the first time I went deep into the question of how to get around," Steinberg says. Six months after the trip, the group contacted Steinberg again to inquire why he wasn't bringing Israelis with disabilities to visit England. So he did, and thus began a long labor of love. It's one that doesn't go unnoticed by his grateful participants. "Danny does this because he loves to do it and when you love to do it, you will always try to make the best of it," says Mati Angel, a three-time trip participant. Angel has been confined to a wheelchair for more than 50 years after being injured in an army accident when she was 18. "I like to go with Danny because there are very few unpleasant surprises," she relates. Almost all of the unpleasant surprises that do occur, however, usually take place once the group is on the airplane, Steinberg notes wearily. Steinberg has fought his share of battles with the airlines - from having to convince travelers to sit next to a handicapped person to reminding a Greek airline that insisted it couldn't accommodate more than two wheelchairs per flight that it would soon have to handle the arrangements for the Paralympics. Although he finds El Al is often one of the most accommodating airlines, he recalls one trip in which as the flight was about to take-off, he made his regular request to see the location of the special narrow wheelchair that airlines provide to maneuver the narrow plane aisles, allowing participants to visit the bathroom. Rather than showing him the wheelchair, the flight attendant asserted that the airliner would provide special bags instead. Appalled by the suggestion, Steinberg demanded that the airline deliver a special wheelchair to the plane whose doors had already been closed for the flight to Peking. An argument ensued which eventually involved the captain of the flight. In the end, the doors were reopened and a truck arrived with the special wheelchair in tow. Steinberg's depth and breadth of knowledge about handicapped travel has led to invitations from the UN to share his knowledge with guides from the General Assembly. Even with preparation, some crises are unavoidable. On a trip to Australia, Cohen fell in a hotel and broke her legs. Although she spent 12 days in the hospital and missed the New Zealand excursion, she managed to fly back to Israel with the main group and has continued to go on the tours to South Africa, Greece and Vietnam. Most of the participants accept that a certain level of risk is inevitable. On more than one occasion, a health crisis has forced a participant to withdraw from the trip at the last minute. Insurance will often cover the financial losses suffered by the participant, but it will not cover the costs of the assistant who will also no longer be traveling on the trip. With tour costs ranging between $2,500 and $4,000, the financial losses can be substantial. As a result, the trips - like any luxury trip abroad (sometimes only five star hotels have wheelchair-accessible rooms) - tend to attract older people who can afford the costs. For the participants who love to travel, the cost is well worth it. Cohen has been on over six trips with Steinberg, and she's only just beginning her world tour. For more information call: 624-9314.