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‘Be Limitless’: Woman With Rheumatoid Arthritis On Travelling to 59 Countries in a Wheelchair

Parvinder Chawla was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis when she was in school. By 21, she had to rely on a wheelchair for mobility. Despite the challenges, she nurtured her passion and has travelled solo to 59 countries so far.

‘Be Limitless’: Woman With Rheumatoid Arthritis On Travelling to 59 Countries in a Wheelchair

Parvinder Chawla was just a schoolgirl when her family began to observe something amiss with her body. She struggled with the proper movement of her joints and jaw. By the age of 21, she received a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis.

“Things took a turn for the worse at that point. I endured constant pain and found myself unable to move freely. From being a fun-loving and outgoing girl, I started relying on others for assistance,” she reflects in a conversation with The Better India.

Fast forward to 2023, and Parvinder is no longer the person she once was. She has transformed into a globetrotter, who has travelled solo to 59 countries — including Dubai, China, Australia and more — in her wheelchair.

Describing her life as the greatest adventure, she reflects on her journey and imparts tips, tricks, and lessons she learned from solo travelling as a person using a wheelchair.

‘Travel become a sign of my independence’

“When the symptoms [of rheumatoid arthritis] first surfaced, it was incredibly frightening. It began with my knees and jaw but progressed to affect my entire body,” she recalls.

Hailing from Mumbai, Parvinder was a sociable child. “I enjoyed engaging with people. I was highly extroverted and relished spending time outdoors. However, as the pain intensified, those very people became a source of fear. I remained vigilant to avoid any physical contact,” she shares.

The escalating pain and dependence on assistance started to enclose Parvinder in self-imposed isolation. The illness brought with it numerous doctor appointments and years of unending pain.

“My condition worsened and there was a time when I was confined to bed, not even able to switch sides,” she says.

During her darkest and most painful days, Parvinder vividly remembers that her mother’s unwavering faith in God was the driving force that kept her going. “Every day, my mother encouraged me to believe in God and trust in His work. Whether it was this steadfast faith or her sheer determination to motivate me, I did find some relief through Ayurvedic treatment,” she recounts.

Parvinder was only 21 years old when her symptoms started to worsen leaving in pain
Parvinder was only 21 years old when her symptoms started to worsen leaving her in pain. Picture credit: Parvinder Chawla

While she remained dependent on a wheelchair for mobility, the relentless pain subsided. “Once I was free from that pain, my thoughts became clearer. I was determined to do whatever it took to turn my dreams into reality. It was my mother’s faith that had sustained me for so long; now, it was time to discover my own purpose,” she expresses.

And where did she find her purpose? In travelling!

It was a trip to Vaishno Devi with her friends that helped her realise that she too can travel. “That trip made me feel that there is a world out there which is open for me to explore. I decided not to let my condition or a wheelchair stop me from living my dream,” she says.

Following this, Parvinder embarked on a journey to Dubai alongside her sister. A significant turning point occurred when her cousin and her husband gifted her an automatic wheelchair.

This thoughtful gift not only instilled in her the confidence to navigate freely but also marked a transformative moment in her life. “Travelling makes me feel alive and also makes me feel independent,” she adds.

‘Be confident and trust the process’

“I would not say travelling when you’re in a wheelchair is easy, but it is not something that cannot be done,” says the solo traveller.

Recalling the difficulties she faced on her numerous trips across the world, she shares. “I was in Italy and I had booked a hotel for my stay. In prior research, I had spoken to the managers if the hotel was wheelchair accessible and they said that it was. However, when I reached the place, they told me that there were four to five steps that I would have to take.”

While it would be hard for her to climb the steps, she would have been able to do it with some help. “But the management said that I can’t stay here because it might cause inconvenience to their other guests,” she adds.

Parvinder has travelled to 59 countries and has no plans of stopping anytime soon
Parvinder has travelled to 59 countries and has no plans of stopping anytime soon. Picture credit: Parvinder Chawla

“I was breaking down while alone, not knowing what to do,” she says. “So I sought refuge in a Gurudwara until I could find an alternative place to stay.”

Looking back at the incident, Parvinder says that it was an experience that she needed. “Every adventure that I have been on in the past years has added to my life experiences. There is always something to learn from such incidents,” she says.

The incident in Italy helped her understand that It is very important to be 100 percent sure whether a hotel is wheelchair accessible.

“I now dedicate a lot of time to research before I book a place,” she says adding, “Such incidents only added to my confidence. I would always think ‘If I can survive this, then I can survive anything’,” she remarks.

Travelling in a wheelchair and on a budget

I do not come from a family of abundant resources. I work to pay off my expenses and fulfil my dreams. “My father wanted to make me an independent individual. He always supported me and helped me to travel with a budget,” she says.

For anyone who is suffering from an illness or is a wheelchair user, Parvinder has a few tips that can help you go a long way.

“Have confidence in yourself. When someone is a wheelchair user, there tends to be a general stigma and pity associated with such people. However, understanding your capabilities, being self-aware of your limitations, and recognising what you can achieve is the key. It will empower you to break free from constraints,” she advises.

Another valuable piece of advice from Parvinder is to be open to accepting help. “Don’t hesitate to ask for assistance. While I understand that the world can be intimidating, there are always good people out there willing to help,” she emphasises.

Reflecting on her own experiences, Parvinder shares, “During my various trips, there were instances where I couldn’t find a road or needed assistance with my wheelchair. In those moments, there were always people willing to help. Some would go out of their way to assist. So, don’t be ashamed or afraid to ask for help.”

In terms of logistics, Parvinder stresses the importance of being prepared for various situations. “Understanding your body and its needs is crucial. Carry medicines and necessary equipment without fail,” she suggests.

Elaborating on her own travel preparations, she adds, “Before visiting a new country, I thoroughly examine every aspect — scrutinising the hotel, the country itself, and its wheelchair accessibility. It’s essential to call the hotel or homestay in advance to confirm if they are fully equipped to cater to the needs of a wheelchair user.”

“Ask questions, and ask lots of them, so that you know what you are getting yourself into. For budget-friendly accommodations, there are tons of homestays and Airbnb options that are disabled-friendly and easy on the pocket,” she explains.

According to Parvinder, thorough research about the place you are visiting can help you navigate various challenging situations and ensure you have a good time exploring a new place.

While Parvinder has travelled to various countries, she still feels India can become more wheelchair accessible. “I would urge all the young people to raise your voice. Help people like me become more independent by making every public place wheelchair accessible. There are so many places in India that I have missed out on because they are not wheelchair accessible,” she shares.

The 54-year-old says she recently suffered a stroke, forcing her to hit pause on her travel plans. But she is getting better and slowly getting back to making new ones. “I have only covered one-fourth of the world; there are many places left. I am keeping my spirits high for the future,” says Parvinder.

You can follow her incredible journey here.

(Edited by Pranita Bhat)

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