Prateek Khandelwal: ramping it up

He’s retrofitting an inaccessible nation, and educating those who think people with disabilities should be pitied or worshipped

Updated - December 09, 2022 03:02 pm IST

Published - December 09, 2022 09:28 am IST

Prateek Khandelwa

Prateek Khandelwa | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Startup founder Prateek Khandelwal, 36, has a poetic way of explaining how you should talk to people with disabilities. The next time you meet us, he says, “Mausam ka mizaj poochein, khaane main kya pasand hai poochein, chai peetein hai ya coffee poochein, unki hobbies kya hai poochein, hal-e-dil poochiye, desh ka haal poochiye.”

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“Instead of pity, or putting us on a pedestal and saying ‘hey, you’re an inspiration, keep fighting’ or ‘we love your spirit’, just normalise your conversation,” he says. Talk about the weather, favourite foods, tea vs. coffee, hobbies, the state of hearts or nations. He’s reluctant to share the other poetry he writes, the one that allows him to describe himself as a ‘shocking shayar’ on dating apps.

In 2014, the former Infosys software engineer-turned-granite businessman went on a construction site and toppled down two floors of a staircase without rails. He hit the edge of a step and suffered a life-changing spinal cord injury that made him paraplegic. His skull was fractured too. “Half my skull is an aluminium plate,” he says.

Second life

Realigning his life was a slow process. Friends drifted away. People offered mostly pity. “Social and career rejection became a part of my life,” he says. “People would say death is a better option than going through this.” The woman he loved left. He realised the wheelchair would be his constant companion.

Fifteen months after his injury, he answered a question he had been avoiding: “what do I want my life to be? I only want my life to be fantastic,” he says, sharing the answer. “I’ve always been blessed with a very positive spirit and my core was preserved, unharmed by the injury.”

He’s certainly more charming and cheery than most people I interview. He’s the kind of guy who will use your ableism as an opportunity to educate you — smilingly. He says he’s trained hundreds of Ola and Uber drivers to dismantle his wheelchair and place it in the boot.

Prateek Khandelwa in the process of retrofitting a work desk to make it wheelchair friendly

Prateek Khandelwa in the process of retrofitting a work desk to make it wheelchair friendly | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

When years of physical rehab began to show results, Khandelwal embarked on a “social rehab”, or getting his friends back in his life. The idea for a startup came in 2018 when a friend invited him to a new restaurant in Bengaluru’s UB City. “I called them to check if it was wheelchair accessible. It wasn’t. So then I tweeted to the owner who put in a ramp,” he says. “That’s where I got the idea to produce better-designed ramps.”

In 2019, Khandelwal founded Ramp My City that installs concrete and metallic ramps (300 so far). “New India is still stuck on ‘let’s make hospitals accessible’,” he says. “I don’t want to go to a hospital, I want to go to a public space with my friends on the weekend.”

View from the wheelchair

The company — that is looking for seed funding to scale its business — also conducts accessibility audits, offers retrofitting design solutions (though disability-friendly elements are incorporated in newer buildings, they’re often not built to standard) and training/ sensitisation programmes.

When he wants employees he’s training to understand what it’s like to negotiate their workplace in a wheelchair, he simply puts them in one. “I tell them to wash their hands and use the toilets, charge their laptops, write on the white board, heat their lunch, open the doors, work on their desks for an extended period of time, sanitise their hands from the dispenser on the wall.”

“It’s simple but very impactful,” he adds. “By the end, they know exactly what has to be done.”

Invariably, they find out that cubicle tables are uncomfortable when you’re working from a wheelchair and most facilities are out of reach. “When you’re on the other side, these simple tasks are very difficult,” says Khandelwal.

The real challenge

Despite the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, which updated the existing law in accordance with international standards, and 2021’s accessibility guidelines by the Central Public Works Department, Khandelwal says that India’s public and private spaces are largely inaccessible to people with disabilities (PWD). Anyone who has travelled with an unstable senior citizen can vouch for this.

Khandelwal has observed that disability inclusion practices are very ‘surface level’ even at billion-dollar companies. He says companies need to implement many more practices before they can give themselves diversity and inclusion badges.

“Companies spend so much money on training but ask employees if they can fold a wheelchair and they will not be able to do it,” he says. “Are there not enough organisations that can provide this kind of training?”

It’s PWD week and Khandelwal speaks to me between giving motivational talks to Indian companies. “I tell them, everyone is challenged and everyone is equal. My physical challenge is visible but yours might be invisible,” he says. “Nobody wants to be treated any lesser because of their challenge.”

Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and the co-founder of India Love Project on Instagram.

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