Delhi-based Neha Arora and her organisation Planet Abled have opened new horizons for India’s disabled population, helping them travel instead of being confined to the four walls of their homes.
“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.” – Saint Augustine
Travel is liberating. Travel is not only about seeing new places, it is experiencing new environments, meeting new people and discovering new things about ourselves.
Why then is a large section of India’s population, the disabled, deprived of such life-changing travel opportunities?
India is not a very disabled-friendly country, even though it has a significant disabled population. As per the census held in 2011, 2.21% of the Indian population suffers from some disability. This number increased by 22.4% between 2001 and 2011, and yet there is a huge lack of sensitization towards the differently-abled. This disregard for the disabled is not just confined to lack of facilities, such as wheelchairs and ramps and special toilets. Awareness about special needs is highly compromised in India and the differently-abled find it difficult to be accepted as a part of society.
Born to a visually challenged father and orthopedically challenged mother, Neha Arora grew up seeing her parents face these struggles on a daily basis. The family is very fond of travelling and the one thing that bothered her most was that accessibility was a huge issue while on the road or participating in leisure activities.
“I thought if we are facing this issue, others might also be going through the same,” says Neha.
It is this realization that led her to set up Planet Abled – a travel company exclusively catering to the needs of the differently-abled. However, the company was not born in a day. She conceived of the idea sometime in November last year and tried to pursue it along with her full-time job. Soon, however, she realized it was impossible to do so and quit her job altogether to devote her energies to Planet Abled.
In January 2016, Planet Abled conducted its first tour – a heritage walk in Mehrauli Archaeological Park (in and around Qutub Minar, New Delhi).
It was a great hit with all the attendees. Neha and her team had tried to take care of everything. There were sign language interpreters for the hearing and speech impaired, well-trained volunteers, and a curator for the visually challenged participants who helped them get close to the structures and touch them. There was a history expert as well who spoke about the monuments and Delhi’s history.
Over the next six months, Planet Abled ventured into customized tours, solo trips, food tours, and workshops. The company started to go places, quite literally.
Plant Abled is a novel concept born out of personal experience.
“The very idea behind our initiative is that travel is not a privilege, it’s a basic human right,” says Neha. The differently-abled don’t want sympathy but need empathy – they just want to be treated like normal people. “As a society we lack both sensitivity and awareness. If people with disabilities are seen around more, it may create awareness in society. Instead of staying inside, they should come out in the open and be seen in malls, stadiums, etc., and travel like everyone else. Once, twice, maybe thrice people will pass comments or give them strange looks; but eventually seeing the disabled everywhere would become a normal sight. In this way, over time, acceptance and sensitivity would develop among the regular population,” Neha adds.
Neha is committed to bringing about a paradigm shift in the way differently-abled people are perceived in Indian society.
What Neha is doing is no easy task. Her team of five, which includes three full-time employees and two interns, works really hard at organizing these events. They plan each tour meticulously and try to preempt every possible scenario that differently-abled people might face during the tour. They’ve discovered that many tourist spots in India are still not wheelchair-friendly so they have procured a mobile ramp that they carry along on all tours. A travel buddy is assigned to each participant and special permissions are taken in advance wherever required. For instance, at a famous flower show, the team took special permission so that the visually challenged tourists could touch and smell the flowers.
There are other practical challenges – like finding accessible hotels that have multiple accessible rooms so that all the participants can stay together. Finding activities that are enjoyable and accessible to differently-abled people is yet another task. But they are getting there. With a lot of work of mouth appreciation, Planet Abled has been able to make a name for itself in a very short span of time. While earlier it was difficult to find volunteers, now people come themselves to be part of the initiative.
“It is difficult to find like-minded serious people who are as passionate about the cause as I am, but that has not deterred me. I want to go slow but steady,” Neha says.
The results have been outstanding.
One of the trips Planet Abled organized was for a visually challenged government officer named Bikash from Guwahati.
He wanted to take some time off from the over protective environment of his family and travel solo through Uttarakhand as a birthday gift to himself. Neha’s team planned and customized a trip for him that included Jim Corbett Park, Haridwar and Rishikesh. The freedom to travel solo, for a visually challenged person who had probably been told and made to believe many times that travelling alone was not for him, was exhilarating – what he experienced at the tour is something that other people cannot even fathom. All this happened thanks to the confidence Neha and her team gave him – that it was no big deal – if others could do it he could too.
Neha’s plans are quite clear – she wants travel to be more accessible and approachable for everyone. She wants Planet Abled to be an organization that people with disabilities trust and believe in for all their accessible travel and recreation needs.
“I want to provide an inclusive tourism platform where people with different disabilities and without medically proven disabilities travel together, breaking all barriers and social inhibitions,” she concludes.
Check out Planet Abled’s Facebook page here.
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