Damiano la Rocca had a hunch. He already knew that going on holiday could make a big difference to someone’s life, and wanted to know if he could use the power of travel to change the lives of people living with disabilities.
‘I knew that by travelling you increase the sense of independence in your life. You’re learning new skills, trying new sports and learning things about the world. There’s a big potential for carrying that home; and for creating an overall improvement to your self-esteem,’ explains Damiano, ‘But that’s not accessible to everyone.’
Wanting to change this he set up Seable in 2013, a social venture that creates tailored holidays so wheelchair users and people with visual impairments can experience life-changing holidays. Not only do people get to visit amazing destinations from Sicily to South Africa, they get to try out activities such as scuba diving, safaris and skiing.
To find out what inspired Damiano to act on his hunch and set up Seable, we need to go back to where the story started.
Carmelo was a young man when the accident happened. He was hit by a drunk driver and rushed into hospital.
In hospital, he made a friend, Martino. Martino had suffered also suffered an accident and they were both recovering from a similar operation. However, their fates were about to take different turns. While Carmelo recovered the use of his legs, Martino didn’t.
Carmelo was in the same hospital room when the doctors Martino was told he would never walk again. Seeing that Martino wasn’t taking the change well, Carmelo pledged to share some of his luck with his new friend.
They started to spend time together. During one of their conversations Carmelo’s hobby, scuba diving, came up. Martino wanted to try it out. After looking into scuba diving lessons for wheelchair users, Carmelo realised that he would have to teach Martino himself. He took a course to become an instructor.
Martino loved scuba diving. He became the first paraplegic man to dive 59 meters, setting a Guinness World Record in 2007.
Together Carmelo and Martino decided they wanted to help other people with disabilities learn scuba diving. They set up a charity, Life Improvement for Everyone (L.I.F.E.) in their native Sicily.
A gap in the market
Carmelo is Damiano’s father – his story and charity inspired Damiano. While at university studying International Tourism Management, he decided to make accessible tourism the focus of his dissertation. He was sure there would be companies out there using it to attract customers. What he found shocked him.
‘There was a really limited offer and selection,’ he says, ‘The few options that did exist were overpriced and limited. You were stuck with group holidays with certain accommodation and transport. The market was leaving people behind – saying that they shouldn’t enjoy the holidays everyone else can.’
It jarred with Damiano’s experience, he knew from his father’s example that accessible tourism worked. He set out to change things, ‘I wasn’t sure whether people had tried and failed, but I just decided to try anyway.’
The early days of Seable
He set up Seable to test out his hunches. In the first year, he had five customers – a blind and independent young Irish guy; two deaf people; and a visually impaired couple, both 85 and in wheelchairs. He used their holidays to test his model and prove that it could work.
‘I realised that the holidays were having a great impact on them and that there was a lot of potential for my idea,’ he says, ‘I decided to start fully on it.’
In the three years since setting up Damiano has helped more than 100 people go on holiday. They might visit Sicily and be taught scuba diving by Carmelo, or travel to another destination, like Slovenia, where Damiano has found, and trained local helpers. The holidays have had a big impact. Around 70% of the people who have been on holiday have reported a positive impact on their wellbeing.
‘Some people are on holiday for the first time in their life. They might not have travelled on their own before, or travelled at all,’ he says, ‘Once they come on their own they often decide to start travelling more often, They might be travelling around the UK to visit friends or start a sport they tried on holiday.’
Damiano was recently awarded one of our Hackney Connect Awards. While his venture was growing organically through word of mouth, he realised that there was more he could do to develop and market his offer. Particularly he wanted to do more to reach the community around him.
‘When I started I looked in a lot of places to see who might want to come on the holidays, but I never thought of looking around me,’ he says, ‘I’m based in Hackney, there are lots of organisations that work with our client base. Thanks to the Award we’ve been able to meet with them and begin to gain their trust so they’ll recommend their clients come on holiday with us.’
One of the unexpected benefits of the Award for Damiano is that it’s helped him to take a more strategic role in his business – to step back from the day to day.
‘We had our first group, 16 people from one charity. I hired and trained helpers at the destination,’ he explains, ‘After the training, I realised that everything was working on its own. Before I thought it wouldn’t work without me, now I’ve realised that it can.’
Seable is going from strength to strength. They’ve launched a new website and are adding new destinations all the time.
‘I’m hooked on this,’ says Damiano. It’s obvious that for him it’s all about the people he’s helping, he litters his conversation with examples. From the person who visited Cyprus with him for the first time and now goes back every year, to the person who was inspired by meeting other blind people living independent lives that he moved out of his family home and found his first job.
Can a holiday change your life? Damiano la Rocca is proving it can.
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