Don't miss a thing! Sign up to be notified about new blog posts.
A few years ago John Butterill took a sick friend on a nature walk. But the friend wasn’t walking alongside him; the friend was video conferencing on his phone, looking at the natural surroundings as John carried the device through the woods. John realized something that day: if he could help this one person whose health had kept him confined and isolated, he could help them all with what came to be known as virtual photo walks.
That very same day Butterill founded Virtual Photo Walks (VPW), a service that allows a person living with disabilities or an illness to travel the world in real time on virtual tours. Thanks to video technology partners like Zoom and a group of dedicated virtual volunteer guides from all over the world, VPW is able to make the world bigger and brighter for a community of people with disabilities.
Virtual Photo Walks is a simple premise: Through Virtual volunteer guides equipped with mobile phones running Zoom, the disabled can participate in immersive, real-time experiences of places they will likely never see first-hand – a nature park, volcano, museum, antique car show, backstage at the symphony, archery competition, or anywhere else. Butterill brings the photographer guide into a Zoom meeting and then invites in the people living with disability. Virtual Photo Walks conducts private and group events every week.
A tour can be one-on-one when it’s a requested event for a terminally ill patient, or it can be for a small group. They are also highly tailored. For example, they have virtually taken a group of World War II veterans too ill to travel to see the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC while their friends attended in person so they could experience the memorial together. “We start with where people want to go,” explained Butterill, “and then we try to make that happen.”
Many participants return again and again. Butterill spoke of one woman who has immune deficiencies. She cannot leave her house for risk of contracting an illness. She has attended many virtual outings. “We’ve built a community,” said Butterill, “People will be disappointed if we don’t show up. Disabled people are so used to being disappointed, to being taken advantage of. So when it is free, and it takes them wherever they want to go, they can hardly believe it. But it’s real!”
There are many reasons why Virtual Photo Walks chose Zoom as their video platform of choice. First, “The fact that Zoom is HIPAA compliant is crucial,” explained Butterill. As was the flexibility and stability. Butterill compared it to other solutions they tried: “Previously we used a consumer video conferencing solution, but it was basically an unstable bandwidth hog. We also didn’t like that everyone needed to have a profile. This is problematic for privacy reasons. Ever since we started using Zoom and the 4G LTE Jet Pack and phones provided by Verizon, our events have been crystal clear, it has been clear sailing. It’s easy, it works in low bandwidth environments, and it is secure and private.”
Privacy is crucial to Virtual Photo Walks. They sometimes have minors participating in their walks (minors must always have a caregiver or parent with them), and regardless, out of respect for the privacy of their participants, they always make use of the Zoom security settings, such as locking the meeting, creating aliases for people’s names, password protecting meetings, and hosting invite-only meetings. Butterill also vets every community member personally. Members appreciate that if they are having a rough day, they don’t have to turn their camera on; they can just sit back and enjoy the experience.
VPW has enhanced their services through partnerships. For example, they partnered with the Sam Sullivan Disability Foundation to video enabled the Trail Rider, a rugged wheelchair that allows the disabled participant to experience remote wilderness locations with volunteer assistance. VPW will add a camera to these Trail Riders so the disabled rider can share their experience virtually with other disabled people.
VPW also partnered with Resolution Care to extend services, and is branching into care facilities for seniors in the US and Canada. They are currently working on getting their program into several large hospitals.
Their latest event was at the Shriners Hospital Honolulu, streaming from Volcano National Park. The guides took a walk on to the floor of the volcano with special permission to enter restricted areas of the park. View the experience yourself.
Virtual Photo Walks Inc is a non profit public charity 501c3 in the US. Learn more and donate to support their programs.