There's a travel company that wants to make travel accessible for people with disabilities in India, and it is breaking down barriers to make that happen.
It will obviously be a saddening situation if you travel nearly 2,000km across the country to see a temple you've always wanted to visit, only to realize your family can't even get in due to lack of wheelchair accessibility. This was exactly the case with Neha Arora, the founder of Planet Abled. Arora’s father is visually impaired and mother is a wheelchair user. She doesn't have fond travel memories except for the rare school picnic or the visit to her grandparents as a child. Although her parents liked traveling, their special needs restricted them from exploring different places.
It's worth noting that about three decades ago, India was not the most accessible place for travelers with accessibility needs. Fast forward to 2017; everything's about the same.
This inspired Arora to come up with Planet Abled early last year. However, things were a lot harder than simply deciding to form a company that offers accessible travel solutions.
She started interacting with people with accessibility issues in order to find out their needs. “To give them a fulfilling travel experience, I had to understand their fears and anxieties – what stopped them from taking the step towards travel?” Arora says.
Aside from the absence of basic facilities such as wheelchair ramps, disabled toilets, and unbiased strangers, Arora managed to ferret out a myriad of other barriers.
Arora spent two years looking for a solution before finally throwing in the towel on her bright career to start up Planet Abled. She worked for software giant Adobe.
The idea behind starting the company was to offer people with disabilities the opportunity to travel without worrying about social restraints and fear regarding their capabilities.
Planet Abled revolves around the concept of “Universal Design,” the intention of designing and creating a surrounding so that it can be accessed, accepted and used by everyone regardless of their abilities, age and size.
Arora is leaving no stone unturned in her attempt to create an all-encompassing environment where disabilities can't form any sort of obstructions.
“Most of the time, a person with a disability remains in their own group of other people with the same disability, or with their family and friends,” she pointed out.
There has been a dearth of travel service in India that allows a hearing-impaired individual to travel alongside a visually impaired person or a wheelchair user with an abled-bodied traveler. Arora was bent on changing that.
Later, customisation for each traveler was interjected. This included adventure, wellness, honeymoon, group travel, solo travel, special interests, and special needs. There are a couple of factors that radically restrict travel for individuals with disabilities in India:
Lack of infrastructure
According to Arora, Indians lack an in-between state i.e. they are either over compassionate or completely indifferent. Regrettably, people with disabilities are refused admittance in mainstream society. As if that weren't enough, they are always considered as victims who heavily rely on other people's support, she explains.
Since subjects such as accessibility and universal design are not even taken into consideration in several Indian technology and architecture courses, the obvious lack of ramps, lifts featuring Braille buttons along with audio outputs, websites and mobile apps with accessibility options for visionless people is hardly surprising.
It has been just 20 months since Planet Abled launched, but the company has already served over 100 travelers ranging from 7 to 71 years of age and with varying disabilities, from speech and hearing impairments to mobility restrictions, autism, cerebral palsy, and Down’s syndrome.
Planet Abled urge other able-bodied travel enthusiasts to participate in their group tours as a travel buddy and explore a never-before-seen kind of travel, Arora added.
Arora recalls organizing her first rafting trip which was quite backbreaking because as many as thirty agencies turned down her request to participate. But, she still managed to make it happen.
Planet Abled's most memorable journey so far is an adventure tour where a visually impaired person ziplined across The Ganges (a.k.a. Ganga) for the first time.
Another highlight of the company's journey until now involves a visually impaired government officer in his late 30s hailing from the north-eastern city of Guwahati, who on his own headed straight to the Himalayan mountain state of Uttarakhand for his birthday.
“He wanted to break out of the shackles of the restrictive environment he had been living in so far,” Arora explained.
There are foreign travelers as well. For instance, a Brazilian aircraft engineer left his country for the first time, traveling solo on his wheelchair in north India for as many as seventeen days. He also stayed in Nepal for a short time.
Arora is set to change the country's attitude towards people with disabilities, but it's easier said than done.
Undeterred by the number of challenges involved in bringing this to fruition, Arora believes, “Travel is not a privilege but a basic human right.”
You can make a differently-abled person's experience special by gifting him/her a tour by clicking here.
(Image Credit: Planet Abled/YouTube)