Four persons with disability journeying across 28 states? Not just that, they have also brought out a photo book on their impressions of India

A journey across 28 states, 40 cities and nearly 19,000 km in 84 days. A daunting itinerary, but for Arvind Prabhoo, Nishant Khade, Sunita Sancheti and Neenu Kewlani, all wheelchair-users, it was a mission. The Mumbaikars needed to know how much of India is friendly to those who have trouble with mobility, how much of India is accessible to people with disabilities. They travelled, and brought out their conclusions in a photo book, aptly named Beyond Barriers.

Determination trumped difficulties, they said. Nishant loves to travel, “do adventurous things” and thought he would club it with meeting NGOs and assessing famous places for accessibility. Barriers, yes, but there is beauty too! He would make it, if Arvind would go with him. “I was excited, fully charged,” he said. Seen from a wheelchair, “India looks incredible!” He loved the monuments, the roads, the authentic food, the Northeast.

A source of inspiration

The book was for a “life-time remembrance.” And it just might motivate friends! “It’s designed by me,” he said. “It will captivate readers. Look at the cover. I'm inside a Pajero, not aware the tyres are resting on the boat while crossing Majuli, Assam.” The enthusiasm stands on tough truth. “India is inaccessible,” he remarked. “People should know what ‘accessibility’ means.” The Centre and the state governments could allot 3 per cent of the budget for making places disabled-friendly, it’s a one-time investment. “How can incredible India be for “we people” unless it's barrier-free?”

Arvind was an avid traveller before a spinal cord injury put him in a wheelchair. A different level of planning was needed now. Much discussion with Nishant preceded his decision to road-tour the length and breadth of the country. “Planning had to be meticulous. Along with proper accommodation, choosing tourist destinations was important. We discussed safety, emergency medical aid, hygienic food/water supplies, maintaining healthy day-to-day practices, high levels of motivation and single-pointed determination to realise our goal.” No matter what, the journey would be completed, and “should any of us need to withdraw, the others would carry on. Except for rapid development and lack of awareness of disability in B/C-grade towns we really had no misgivings.”

But “the journey was arduous, the challenges enormous, but we completed the tour,” Arvind said. The coffee table book (published by Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Smarak Samiti, Mumbai) has pictures speaking of the adventures. Inspiring more like them would be its primary reason. “We completed the journey without a whiff of illness,” he bragged. “Standing testimony to our planning and pre-tour preparation.”

Dream come true

Exploring the country was a 10-year dream for Nirmala Kewlani and Sunita Sancheti. “I couldn’t join family vacations because none of the tourist destinations or hotels is accessible to people with disabilities (PwDs),” said Nirmala. “So when Arvind and Nishant mentioned their plan, we grabbed the opportunity.”

Her parents thought it was a crazy idea, worried about her health and safety. “I was unsure of the Northeast,” she admitted, and about the inaccessibility of places, toilet needs on highways, being away from work for three months, different climatic conditions, food, raising funds, booking guest houses...” but it was a dream come true, and “I would leave my comfort zone and soar high in uncharted skies” to meet people, experience cultures. They clicked pictures and had a budding photographer-friend accompanying them. “Through this book we want to relive our memorable moments with family and friends.”

Great tuning among members was a major highlight. “We planned the trip ourselves and didn't give up in spite of challenges like climate, fatigue and missing our families,” she said. “Our caretakers looked after us like rock.” There are indelible memories: “doing garba in Ahmedabad among 500 people with disability, visiting Akshardham, Jagannath Puri, Tirupati temples, the beautiful monasteries in Leh-Ladakh, Pangong Lake, Vishakhapatnam, Kanyakumari, Auroville, being stuck for three hours in the car on the Majuli islands, celebrating my birthday in Leh….”

For Sunita it was all about exposing the lack of tourism infrastructure for PwDs. “They are never part of Indian tourism,” she said. “There is no understanding that PwDs would like to explore our beautiful country.” It had to be the road because that's how 70-75 per cent of people prefer to travel as per a Government of India study. The observations would go into a book and a report. “Travel websites are not disabled-friendly, don’t give information about accessible tourist places or hotels,” she said. “Public places and public transport — inter/intra-state — have to be accessible.” But the roads in Lucknow are fine and Gujarat's very good. Leh-Ladakh are developing tourist places for PwDs; NGOs are doing a lot of work. “Accessible places should mention it on their websites. Disabled tourists from home and abroad will bring economic benefits to the country,” she said.

WHAT CAN BE DONE

* Sensitise, train government agencies, disability commissioners, state tourism boards, NGOs to accessibility norms.

* Create facilities such as restrooms along the highways.

* Ensure accessible public transport, sidewalks and lifts.

* Make educational institutes and government offices accessible.