As the meat sputtered over the coals, the young man in the wheelchair rocked back and forth across the grass in the warm Florida evening. For 20 minutes he spoke rather casually of how he came to be handicapped and then he shifted apprehensively to the topic of his approaching first visit to a bar. Would he be able to guide his chair through the anticipated crowd? Would people be incredibly surprised when the little knot of handicapped vacationers came through the door? Would they say anything?
A day at the beach, a barbecue with friends, a trip to a local pub are pleasures magnigied greatly by their rarity for the handicapped adult. A new branch of the nonprofit Centers for the Handicapped in Silver Spring provides days like this in St. Petersburg, Fla., and on the eastern Shore.
These one and two-week trips to the beach evolved out of the Center's regular recreation program. "We began taking clients on short camping trips and trips to different cities a few years ago," remembers Robert Dempsey, administrator of the Vacation/Travel Program. "The outings were so successful and productive we gradually expanded to this." Dempsey mentions the relaxed atmosphere, the excitement of a new surrounding, independence from and for the family, and time to talk. These are what he sees as the big bonuses.
Centers for the Handicapped was begun in 1948 by the parents of handicapped children and provides daytime facilities for infants, children and adults. The adult center includes a covational training program and sheltered work environment, as well as prevocational training for more serious handicaps.
Two years ago, the Centers leased a house near Rehoboth so that clients could enjoy a week or a weekend at the beach. Since then the house has been purchased and made barrier free, and the Florida trips have begun. Dempsey would love to see the purchase of a Florida house, too,. so he can stop carting and constructing ramps for rented houses down South.
In Florida a staff of five or six guide the activities of up to 2 guests over 18 years old with mental and physical handicaps ranging to severe. The Florida week cost $160, including housing, food, special care and entertainments such as an excursion to Disney World.
Transportation is not included, but the Centers will arrange for the lowest possible fares and meet the travelers at the airport. Three Florida scholarships are awarded each year by local civic groups.
At the Eastern Shore house, the staff is considerably larger to accommodate up to 30 guests at a time. A week there cost $140 and includes transportation from Washington.
As might be expected, the Eastern Shore trips have served Washington area residents especially well. The Florida trips have had a bit more participation from out-of-area guests. Young adults have been the main takers, but this year more reservations are coming in from older people. Recently, unpaid radio and newspaper spots in 10 eastern states have brought good response and the message has reached at least as far as the Midwest. A recreation association of handicapped people from Nebraska reserved the Florida house for one week in March.
"There is obviously a great need for this and very few programs like ours," says Dempsey. Flying Wheels of Minesota and Rambling Tours of Hallendale, Fla., both commercial travel agencies, operate similar tours, some to such exotic places as Hawaii, the Caribbean. Europe and Israel.
"We don't take any mentally retarded or (mentally) handicapped guests. They don't mix with the physically handicapped," said a Rambling Tours spokesperson. "We know. We've tried."
Another option for seriously handicapped people is a trip to a summer camp. Although names like Camp Goodhope and Camp Sunshine might not suggest it, the vacations provided there offer a good deal of independence.
How does the mix work-the mentally handicapped traveling with the physically handicapped? According to Dempsey, "People with handicaps are much more tolerant of other sorts of handicaps." Florida guest Marsha Meisler spent a day pushing a wheelchair-bound friend around an amusement park. The Bethesda resident commented, "It's a shame more rides aren't accessible (to those in wheel-chairs)."
Severely physically handicapped guests require a good deal more attention and their numbers are limited on each trip by staff size. Says Dempsey, "We take persons with most handicapping conditions, but we can accommodate only two persons in wheelchairs each week." Unforutnately it seems that the greatest response has come from people with physical handicaps.
"I thought my mother was the only person in the world who would take care of me like this," admits a 24-year-old wheelchair-bound guest on his first trip away from home. And there is enough in the statement to surprise even Dempsey, who thinks one of the best things about the tour program is the way it allows visibility. He feels handicapped people are taking an increasingly active role in "normal" life and dates this to the Kennedy administration. But still he says it is hard for some folks to think of the handicapped having a good time. CAPTION: Picture 1, Buses used by Pinetree Tours to transport handicapped travelers feature a lift and space inside for wheelchairs; photo by Herb Radin, Pinetree Tours.; Picture 2, Wide drawbridge is one of the features at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Va., designed to permit access to the handicapped; photo by David Hume Kennerly.