Making travel disabled-friendly

As another International Day of Persons with Disabilities goes by (December 3), Neha Arora tells us how she was drawn to her mission to make travel accessible for the disabled

December 05, 2018 03:15 pm | Updated December 06, 2018 12:38 pm IST

A tagline for Planet Abled that goes — ‘Together let us make the planet accessible for everyone to travel, one trip at a time’ — sums up its founder, Neha Arora’s mission. Determinedly, that is what she has been doing since 2016.

Come February 2019, and the company will take a group of people with varied disabilities on an adapted skiing trip to Gulmarg. Planet Abled has developed more than 35 destinations across the country around various themes. This year, it was judged among the best, innovative practices in the world by the Zero Project Conference 2018 at United Nations, Vienna. Practices, worldwide, which have positively impacted the lives of people with disabilities and support the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, are chosen.

Growing up, Neha and her sister’s ‘holiday’ experience, as the children of a visually-impaired father and a wheelchair-bound mother was a trip to their grandparents’ home. Any other trip, as family, was not possible. Even after the sisters were older and they started travelling farther, inaccessibility and inflexible attitudes became part of their experience. Access decided how and where the family vacationed. Her parents were accepting of the attitudes, but not Neha. After a particularly unpleasant experience in Kerala, her parents declared they were done travelling.

Constant planning and the logistics of travel were a strain as well. Travelling 2,000 miles and realising that the holiday experience was ‘different’ (not positively) because of accessibility was no fun. “We were asked ‘why come if you have so many problems?’”; it set her thinking about how others with disabilities travelled.

Speaking to others in a similar position, as part of her research, she learnt that they wanted to travel. But the refrain was ‘is it possible for us?’; apprehension prompted by a fear of the unknown. Families were just as anxious about the person with disability travelling alone — if on one end of the scale lay excessive sympathy, then on the other was insensitivity. Neha decided to find a solution.

She spent close to three years researching the issue, wanting to find an optimum solution for the ‘problem’. Homework included sitting at multiple airports to see how many disabled people travelled. In 2015, she quit her job with Adobe, and the following year, in January, set up Planet Abled and announced the first trip.

It was a local tour of New Delhi, where she is based, “promising a Leh-Ladakh holiday would hardly inspire confidence”, she says. She was surprised to find that 20-odd people with varying disabilities signed up for it. She got 20-25 of her friends (people without disabilities) to be travel buddies for that first tour. Travel buddies are also paying customers.

Mixing people with disabilities was a conscious decision. Her research showed that companies handling travel for disabled persons in other countries grouped people with similar disabilities together. She, however, couldn’t choose a disability, “It would be like choosing between my parents.”

This had its advantages, “It was the best part. Each person had a different challenge, and they understood each other’s struggles. For the travel buddies too it was a different experience; they started paying more attention to details and experiencing the sights differently,” she says.

While sign language experts help the speech and hearing-impaired, the visually-impaired too “experience” the holiday. “If a person is born blind, there are no points of reference. You can’t explain the destination, an audio won’t help either... you get 3D-printed models. The details cannot be compromised; it is micromanaging but that is what creates the experience.”

Neha says, “We want to open doors for people with disabilities to travel the way they want. If they are alone and want to travel with a group or travel solo; if they want to travel with their family and/or friends or if they want a romantic getaway, the possibilities are endless.”

Destinations are developed with care. Often, getting players on board involves a great deal of negotiating. Neha visits each destination to prepare an ecosystem for travel, including the built spaces, based on the universal design principle. “We have a consulting division which helps travel companies, hotels and resorts, events and restaurants to become disabled-friendly not just in built environments for people on wheelchairs, but for all disabilities; sensitisation, people skills and reaching out to the still untapped market of barrier-free travel.”

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