‘Outside India, people see disabled as humans first’

14 Jul,2022

 

 

By Shruti Pushkarna

 

Shruti PushkarnaI was fifteen, when I first traveled outside the country, across the Pacific. The trip was an eye-opener, educative and liberating. It exposed me to different people, culture, food, places and more. Something that shaped me in different ways in the following years.

 

To me travel means independence. I wonder what it means to a person with disability who is written off as ‘dependent’. Do disabled people like to travel? Do they have the freedom to travel given the inaccessible (physical) environment and limiting societal perceptions?

 

To get a sense of their desires, challenges, and the scope of travel in and outside India, I spoke with Neha Arora, the Founder of Planet Abled. An organisation that makes travel accessible and inclusive for persons with all types of disabilities and the elderly. Neha worked with companies like HCL, Nokia and Adobe before launching Planet Abled.

 

Neha Arora, Founder, Planet Abled

Neha Arora, Founder, Planet Abled

Question: Tell us a bit about yourself, Neha.

Answer: I was born to parents with disability. My father is blind and my mother is a wheelchair user. I have lived all my life with disability and challenges. Growing up, we never went for a holiday. I assumed money was the problem, so when I started earning, I saved up to plan a holiday. That’s when I realised my naiveté, it wasn’t the money, it was about the lack of accessibility and the prevalent insensitivity in the society. Most disabled people, especially in a country like India, are conditioned that travel is not for them. I refused to accept it, picking fights everywhere. There came a tipping point after a mob fight, when I decided to look for solutions. Unable to find any comprehensive solution for all disabilities, I decided to do something about it myself.

 

Q: So, you left your corporate job to start something of your own. How did things go from there?

A: I had a few lessons in entrepreneurship because I was a hustler with my job as well. But this time I wanted to succeed, so I did proper homework for the next two to three years. I sat at airports, counting the number of people traveling from different cities, because there was no official data. I talked to staff at hotels and airports, asking about the number of disabled folks coming in. When I couldn’t find any data still, I thought there was something seriously wrong. I decided to take it up as an opportunity, which was hidden in plain sight. In the final year of my groundwork, I tried to understand the disabled community’s challenges and the solutions that could work.

 

Q: How did you come up with the name, ‘Planet Abled’?

A: Planet Abled because it’s not the disability that stops people from exploring the world. It’s the environment and establishments that are inaccessible. It’s the stigma that exists around disability. So, in a way we have to make the planet ‘abled’ for everyone to travel and have the freedom of choice to do so.

 

Q: You mentioned that India doesn’t have any data on disabled travelers. In your experience, how do other countries fare on this?

A: Other countries have specific numbers. US, Germany and Australia track not only the number of disabled people traveling but also the total spends. In 2019, US citizens spent $ 58 billion on disabled travel, that’s a huge market. In India, we don’t even have the exact count of persons with disabilities. But other countries have specific data based on which they create facilities.

 

Q: So, you are saying there is a business case for disabled travel, but India is far behind?

A: Yes. I also think that people with disabilities are at fault. In my experience, many of them don’t want to spend the money even if they have it. They expect to receive services for free on grounds of disability. As a result of this sense of entitlement, businesses won’t consider them a paying customer or market. Only a handful of Indians want to spend money on service and access. If you don’t want to pay for a value-driven service, you won’t have enough services that value you as a customer. It’s a two-way street.

 

Q: I have had a lot of ‘able-bodied’ people react strangely to the idea of a blind or a deaf person wanting to travel. They simply don’t understand why would a disabled person want to travel.

A: I think people who have no exposure to disability, should join one inclusive group trip because it makes them realise that this person with disability is just like me. And they are also looking for travel experiences where they can enjoy and have fun. The way they perceive or experience things, might be different. For example, a wheelchair user might need to follow a route which is step free, and they might need an accommodation which is suitable to their accessibility needs, which is rare and expensive in our country. Let’s say you visit a historical monument, you see it and probably have a guide sharing information about it. How would a blind person perceive it? To make it inclusive and accessible, we print 3D models of monuments to have them touch and feel. Similarly, for a deaf person you can make it engaging in sign language or easy language. Reading complicated text is difficult for deaf people. Unlike India, other countries have deaf guides commonly available.

 

Q: Travel was severely hit during the pandemic years, and to some extent it still is. But now I hear people itching to travel, pull out of their confines, they are going for something called ‘revenge travel’. How do you see a disabled person in this context, who has been confined for so many years together?

A: Like you said, it’s not new for a disabled person to not be out. They are conditioned in a way to stay indoors. But what I see a lot of desperation in them as well, to go out. I receive urgent requests from people wanting to travel day after! In the second wave also, I had people calling me to plan a trip. Because whatever little social life they had, also disappeared. So, there is revenge travel happening in the context of disability as well. I have a client in the US who retired from her government job, to travel. She wants to indulge herself, travel and experience the world for as she long as she lives. She and her husband both have a disability, they don’t have any kids.

 

Q: What are the differentiating factors you have noticed in your travel within the country and abroad, in terms of ease of travel for a person with disability? Do empathy levels vary in societies and cultures?

A: Specific to the type of disability, access needs vary. In terms of physical infrastructure, metro city hotels fare better, especially 4-star and above, because of compliance. They don’t do it from the goodness of their heart or as a business need, but only to get a star-rating. I have had some horrible experiences with some of the biggest chains in the country despite their tags of being compassionate and disabled-friendly. In fact, I find local/regional chains to be more sensitive and empathetic to the needs of disabled customers. Outside India, people are more sensitive. They see you as humans first. Of course, having a strong legislation helps, as in the case of US. Some countries have a culture of inclusion. In Australia, there are legal setups for disabled people being paid to travel with a caregiver because it is important for the well-being and health. They have organizations who look after the rights of caregivers.

 

Q: Travel brings exposure to new places, people, environments et cetera. How important do you think travel is in the process of empowerment of persons with disabilities? Have you seen any transformation in your clients?

A: Travel makes you realise what a tiny part of the world you are. And there are so many diverse people you come across that prejudices go away. Travel has the ability to resolve the radicalisation and intolerance that we see around us. People have told us that you gave us the best day of our life because we never even thought this was possible. Some even complain about turning into travel addicts! Some have gone back and taken up driving lessons, or joined a gym, or picked up a hobby, thinking no barrier is impossible to overcome. Some special friendships have emerged from our inclusive travel groups, bringing down the apprehensions around disability.

 

Q: Do you think the Indian media can contribute in any way towards making travel a natural choice for a person with disability as much as it is for any other citizen?

A: Of course. It’s all about correct representation. If the media talks about it, people can see the human side of things. It’s important to make a film, music video or an advertisement inclusive in representation. Media companies have to make their own content accessible, they have to walk the talk. It has to start with seeing disabled people as ‘people’ first. Inclusion has to be part of the leadership’s agenda, for any section of society that is underrepresented.

 

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