"I want to pick up a kangaroo!"
"What about koala bears? I have a crush on them!"
"Can I rent a surfboard in Tahiti?"
"I want to go snorkeling."
"Not me! I'd be afraid!"
These are not the ordinary remarks of everyday travelers, but the cheerful and unabashed comments of a special group of people who seldom get to travel.
People on vacation don't often run into fellow travelers who are developmentally disabled, emotionally handicapped, traumatically head-injured or autistic.
But they did on a recent cruise aboard the Delta Queen. There was the man named Fred who came aboard wearing a crash helmet (because he's subject to seizures). He shook their hands, one after another, saying, "Hi! I'm Fred. We'll be traveling together."
The Other Passengers
"At first, some of the other passengers didn't know what to think of our group. But by the third day they loved us," said the group's leader, Dee Duncan, founder and director of Duncan Tours/Special Travel.
Robin Hixson, general manager of the Delta Queen, agreed. "Out of 150 other passengers, there were only two complaints," he said. "I personally admired them a lot and I think most of the passengers felt that being around the group was a positive experience."
"Special" is more than a euphemism for such words as "disturbed" or "retarded." These people are special because they cut across the social conventions that restrict much of our everyday behavior.
They speak to strangers when others might be too shy or reserved. They laugh when something strikes them funny, while others might be embarrassed to laugh. They aren't too polite to abruptly change the topic when a conversation begins to bore them.
It is these qualities that endear them to other travelers who are lucky enough to find "special" travelers on their cruise boat or in their sightseeing bus, said Maureen Raphael, tour coordinator, Duncan's one full-time employee.
A Hearst Castle guide squired one of their groups around the estate at San Simeon, warming to her task as they asked questions worthy of a prying gossip columnist about the former occupants. But her favorite question came at the end of the tour when she asked them: "Now is there anything else you'd like to know?"
"Do you have children?" asked a member of the group.
Letter of Praise
A Sherman Oaks mother of a 26-year-old mentally retarded daughter wrote a letter of praise about Duncan Tours/Special Travel.
"Our daughter is not emotionally or socially retarded, but she needs to be with others who think, talk and move at her pace. During her school years, in special education programs she had the companionship of friends. After graduation she rarely saw them, and there was little opportunity for making new friends. The warmth, rapport and social acceptance that was part of her school life was gone," she wrote.
"Dee Duncan has discovered the tremendous value of travel for what she fondly calls 'mentally challenged' individuals. She believes that a person with a special need should not be perceived as a problem, but rather as an asset and a contributor to the lives of others.
"Her goals are to dispel the myths surrounding these individuals and to make travel available to people who often live very isolated lives."
Because of the special needs of her clients, Duncan provides a service beyond compare with most tour operators. Occasionally she puts aside her daily routines to do a one-to-one tour.
"One of my clients is a mildly developmentally disabled woman, in her 60s," Duncan said. "I recently took her on an overnight trip to Los Angeles to go to the theater. And last month we went to see 'The King and I,' playing at Pismo Beach."
Such custom-designed tours can be expensive. These one-to-one overnights cost about $200 a day. However, that pays all expenses: for the escort (doubling as driver), transportation, theater tickets, meals, gratuities and accommodations for both traveler and companion. And while the clients are able to enjoy the theater, a fine meal and the pleasure of travel itself, many of them can't manage their own finances, so that too becomes part of the service.
List of Chaperones
"We have a list of on-call chaperones," Duncan said. "Some of them are nurses. Others are volunteers who are experienced in dealing with developmentally disabled people." They include teachers, counselors, therapists and psychologists.
The challenges are many, Duncan admitted. Some of the travelers are emotionally disturbed or unduly fearful, although they long to have the experience of travel. "They need extra assistance," she said.
Duncan, 32, has been leading such tours for nine years, as a residential supervisor at the Devereaux Foundation in Santa Barbara and on her own since January, 1985. Raphael had also worked at Devereaux.
In the dozens of tours she's led, Duncan said, "there have been very few behavior problems. I think the reason is that they're so excited to be able to do this that if they have a tendency to have tantrums, for example, it wouldn't be while they're on tour."