Prema Manmadhancatches up with a group of intrepid travellers passionate about making tourism accessible, irrespective of abilities
They were there at the Taj Mahal, waiting to see the wonder that they had heard of. Jani Nayar, executive coordinator of SATH (Society For Accessible Travel and Hospitality) had come with a group of people from New York. While some waited in their wheelchairs and others who were visually impaired listened for the sounds of the famed Taj, Jani was at her persuasive best, trying to get the authorities to let this group in. “I had to argue with them for full 45 minutes because they said persons in wheelchairs could not get in as there were narrow steps leading to the mausoleum. I said we could carry them in. They refused. Finally, they relented and we carried them in,” the feisty woman says. Why is it that the Taj Mahal does not have ramps to enable such people to get in with dignity?
But Jani is happy that the incident resulted in a happy ending on two counts. Dr. Scott Rains, who was among the tourists from New York had addressed a group of IIT students a day earlier. They were with them at the Taj and they have been allowed by the ASI to design a hydraulic lift for physically impaired people to see the Taj Mahal without being carried in, something that no human being likes. Accessible tourism is all about this, about getting people with disabilities to travel independently and where they want.
The Indian chapter of ASTA (American Society for Travel Agents) and SATH are conducting seminars in cities to create awareness about accessible travel. It was held in Kochi at Casino Hotel on Friday. “We are a sizable chunk of tourists, actually,” says Scott Rains, who is an activist in this field along with Craig Grimes from Barcelona.
Inclusion is the mantra they all swear by. Why can’t a person on a wheelchair travel, he asks. With an attendant, of course, I say and he protests. “What for? There is no need for an attendant at all. Have proper ramps everywhere, at the airport, at the hotel, from the room to the pool to the parking lot. Have a bathroom floor that slides down from the bedroom, without a division so that the wheelchair can be wheeled in. And let there be at least five feet space all around. Let us travel with dignity, there is no need for an attendant,” Scott explains.
This attempt to educate the travel industry on the needs of travellers with disabilities will certainly be an eye opener to people at all levels, in the Government and private sector. That is when we begin thinking of our own population with disabilies, who are wheelchair bound, who cannot even go to a bank or a movie theatre without being carried in with their dignity trampled all over.
“Are ramps so expensive to make? NO. It is the will that is needed, and which is lacking,” says Jani, a committed activist in this field. “Attitudes must change,” chip in Scott and Craig, who have travelled all over the world and even participated in adventure tourism. Instead of giving in to an insensitive world where the disabled and the aging, a minority are not taken into consideration when buildings are designed for any purpose, these organisations are fighting for their rights: for right to travel independently where they want.
“This will be a beginning towards that goal,” hopes Ranju Joseph, a travel agent who is actively involved in the “Accessible Travel” project, who does not have one forearm, but drives a car effortlessly when he visits the US, because he is empowered to do it there. There is something called the universal design which we are propagating, which architects can use while making rooms for people with disabilities, says Scott.
“Recently an airline refused to allow a dog to travel with its master, a visually impaired person. The dog was trained to see to his needs. This was unfair to him,” says Scott. In a lighter vein he says, “He took his wife instead,” and laughed. In the West, dogs help the visually impaired people as also people with other disabilities. There are birds like the parrot also which are used for such purposes, he adds.
“As dogs can be of service for hardly eight years after which they retire, monkeys, which live much longer are being trained by many. Once I saw a pig which was used for help by a person!” Jani says. People can thus live alone and go out on their own, which is something we in India cannot think of.
Travelling is unheard of, except maybe going to a place of worship or a bank! If attitudes change, so can the lives of people with disabilities. “Making a ramp will not only help us, but it is easier for people like you to lug your luggage,” points out Scott, who is truly inspiring and can lift anybody’s spirits. (His email id for people who want to contact him: firstname.lastname@example.org.) So such facilities can be of help to all, was his point. The travel industry also needs to be sensitized about disability etiquette.
We use umpteen euphemisms for a handicapped person (it became physically-challenged and then differently-abled) for fear of hurting their sensibilities but when it comes to making their lives easier, are we putting in any effort? The public, the government or private institutions? Something to pause and ponder surely!