I have been an avid traveler all my life. As kids, our summer and Diwali holidays would always involve getting out of the city. In those days, a road trip would take precedence over traveling in a train. Traveling by air was not on our radar.
I carried on with my interest in traveling and driving as I grew up and started living independently in Mumbai. All weekends were meant for exploring the city or driving out of the city. A combination of public holidays meant planning a longer trip with family and friends. I was also lucky enough to work in an industry that involved a lot of traveling. I always combined fun and exploring whenever I traveled for work.
The immediate feeling after I got my spinal cord injury in June 2011 was as if my wings have been cut off. Forget travel, I could not even move from one corner on the bed to another by myself. I am a quadriplegic; paralyzed below shoulders and unable to use fingers. I felt like bidding goodbye to the days when I could just head off at the flick of a finger.
After the injury, I have to think of multiple factors before traveling:
When getting out of the home, the car should have enough space for the wheelchair as well. Wheelchair-accessible taxis are available in few cities only. So I will have to be lifted and placed inside a regular car. The person lifting should be strong enough.
Prepare to minimize bladder and bowel accidents. If on CIC, reduce the amount of water that I drink. Wear an adult diaper, just in case things go out of control.
Is the place I am going to accessible in a wheelchair? Do they have ramps and lifts or will my wheelchair be lifted over a flight of stairs? Is the pathway smooth or uneven? A little information about these factors will help in deciding whether to take my motorized wheelchair or my manual one. The motorized chair is easier for me to maneuver, but it is heavy and difficult to lift over multiple steps.
Sometimes basic stuff can create difficulties. For example, if the height of the bed in the hotel is very low or very high, then shifting from bed to the wheelchair gets tough. It’s even worse if the bed has a spring mattress where you sink in. The width of the bathroom door in most homes in India is narrow as compared to regular doors. So the shower wheelchair that one carries when traveling to visit relatives should be of a lesser width.
Once when traveling abroad, the airline misplaced my wheelchair’s battery bag. Airlines have rules where the battery cannot be plugged into the wheelchair when on-board/ in cargo. So we always pack it in a separate bag. Another time they misplaced my entire motorized chair. Apparently, it got shipped off to another destination and I received it only after a day. I had to make do with using the airport wheelchair that day.
There are many things that we can prepare for. And there are many more things which will be beyond our control.
Traveling with a disability is about being able to go through all the above and still coming out smiling, hugging all the memories of things that did not go wrong and were pleasurable beyond expectations.
In New Delhi, I enjoyed getting up close to brilliant Mughal architecture at the Kutub Minar. The complex has been declared as a UNESCO world heritage site and making it accessible was a prerequisite.
In Mumbai, I propelled my wheelchair along the diamond necklace aka Marine drive, matching steps with joggers and fitness enthusiasts early-morning.
In Udaipur, I’ve taken a boat ride and enjoyed the thrill of going up and down in a ropeway over a dense forest. So what if my wheelchair had to be lifted and placed inside the boat and the cable-car respectively. Thorough ground research and arrangements by Planet Abled made this possible for me.
In Oslo, I have driven my wheelchair through snowfall and snow-filled sidewalks. I learned that in cold weather the battery gets exhausted quickly, so remember to charge it overnight everyday.
In Barcelona, I enjoyed traveling in buses and trams, just like my fellow travelers without disabilities. The public transport was equipped with ramps and sensible drivers. The city also gave me my first experience of an accessible beach.
In Colombo, I was able to go right up to the seashore despite the beach not having an accessible pathway. Not a good experience for the hotel wheelchair that got soaked in sand, but it was a wonderful experience for me to feel the sea breeze on my face.
In Mahur, much to the delight of my mother, I was able to take darshan of our family goddess whose temple is situated on top of a hill and the only approach is 120 steps. Thanks to the professional doli’s who carry devotees with mobility difficulties up to the temple.
In Ahmedabad, I was able to relive my childhood by sitting in the toy train at Kankaria Lake. They had one carriage with a folding ramp that could accommodate a wheelchair.
In Pune, I chanced upon the possibility that even a quadriplegic can do scuba diving. I found out about this over a casual conversation with Divyanshu Ganatra with whom I got in touch only because I was traveling to the city. So what if I practiced in the swimming pool instead of an open sea.
As many of you must have experienced, most places in India are inaccessible. But you can still make the most of it by door darshan 😉
Charminar in Hyderabad is located in the middle of a crowded junction in the old city. The best way to get a closer look was to drive around it. Ditto with the longest beach in India, the Marina beach in Chennai.
Chandni Chowk in old Delhi is also not a friendly destination for wheelchair users. But I did manage to relish the famous Parathas from Parathe Wali Galli in the comfort of my car.
In India, it’s not just the places, even the mode of transport is a barrier. I would have never reached anywhere if I would have waited for an accessible vehicle.
I have enjoyed moving around despite the various physical and mental barriers. Believe it or not, in most situations it is ‘your will’ that can hold you back or let you fly. Forget about being a burden on others or feeling hesitant to demand accessibility or the trouble others will have to go through for taking you to inaccessible places. If it is family and friends, they will go to all lengths joyfully to have your company. If it is movie theaters, restaurants or even the typical tourist destinations, earning your business will only make their pockets smile. I am not so confident about trains and bus services, but airlines do give a preferential treatment to the disabled.
Reality check says that accessibility cannot become a norm and be implemented overnight. That is why do not hold back if your heart aches to venture out. Start with getting out on the street or a park near your home. Be seen. Let the non-disabled people notice that we are also among them and we too like to travel and go places.
Traveling with a disability teaches you to be open to change in plans, be aware that whatever can go wrong could actually go wrong and not get disheartened if external expectations are not met. And more than anything, because of all these experiences you will learn to make the most delicious lemonade of all the lemons life throws your way. Yummy!!!
Give me a shout out and let’s say Cheers the next time you make one.
Mrunmaiy Abroal is a communications professional and a technology and travel enthusiast. Living with spinal cord injury since 2011, she has not let disability curb her enthusiasm for embarking on new voyages. She believes that things may seem impossible in the beginning, but one has to just keep trying. She also blogs at https://mrunmaiy.com .