A lot of work is being done by NGOs, individuals & activists on education, employment, rights and entitlements, empowerment, travel, transport and many such crucial issues regarding people with disabilities. There have been breakthroughs on some front and we are yet struggling on others. So why the struggle? What are the obstacles?
There are barriers like attitudes, infrastructure, law & policies which impact our day to day life.
Travel & Tourism for people with disabilities is one such aspect which is only a dream for many in our country. While on one hand we agree that People with Disabilities (PwDs) have equal right to travel with dignity and access to all tourism infrastructures & yet it is an irony that senior citizens and disabled people have NOT been considered as potential customers for majority tourist destinations. Inaccessibility to transportation, accommodation and tourist sights discourages us to venture out.
On 5th March 2005, my co member Sunita Sancheti & me (both wheelchair users), visited Taj Mahal at Agra for a project. This was after Prof. Stephen Hawking’s visit to India. On the highway from Delhi to Agra we realized there was not a single disabled friendly toilet.
With quite a few of us on wheelchairs it was a huge challenge. Much later to our relief when we were nearing Agra via NH2 we found a McDonalds outlet, which had an accessible toilet. But this was not the end of the ordeal. After travelling this far and facing so many difficulties it was disappointing that only 2-3 of us could go right up to the tomb which is the significant part of this monument.
There were countless steps & few steep ramps. After this disappointing experience we realized that there was a lot of work to be done in this area.
Later in 2011 we got the opportunity to work on tourism when two of our friends Arvind Prabhoo & Nishant Khade both trustees of Access for all foundation invited us to join them for All India Tour, by road. The project was taken under Vijay Merchant Rehabilitation Centre for Disabled titled Beyond Barriers- Incredible India Tour.
On 28th of Sep 2011, we began our adventurous journey with a purpose. A purpose which we believed would make our beautiful country, barrier free, a tourist destination for all. We set out to travel across the country by road, covering 19500 kms in 84 days. We visited 28 state capitals and 40 cities. Each one of us had our stories & reasons which is why we came together.
Says Sunita “Travel is very important aspect of each persons life. It can be for work, recreation, social visits or religious ceremonies. I am born and brought up in Mumbai and my extended family & cousins stay in different states of the country, it is challenging and expensive for me to travel when I want to visit them. A nature freak basically, I love travelling to beautiful places which has always been a dream. I have travelled a lot before my spine injury at the age of 16 . Hence when the opportunity to explore the accessibility level in our country for people with disabilities, knocked on my door I grabbed it .My family was concerned as I had two major surgeries just in a span of one year before this travel, but at the same time they felt that it was a life time opportunity for me to fulfill my dream of working on accessible tourism”.
Nishant Khade one of our adventurous four comments “I have always been adventurous and loved to travel a lot. Unfortunately, after the accident it couldn’t be continued. One day while chatting with my friend Arvind, who also uses a wheelchair, a thought came to our minds, Let’s do something adventurous!, and we decided to tour whole of India by road. Thus the old enthusiasm got refreshed. I was excited, fully charged. Seen from a wheelchair, India looks incredible! I loved the monuments, the roads, the authentic food, & the Northeast. Luckily for me there were no discouragements. Thanks to my family & friends for supporting me”
He continues “Post this memorable life changing tour we published a coffee table book for ‘life time remembrance’. It’s designed by me, it will captivate readers. People should know what ‘accessibility’ means. The central and the state governments could allot 3 per cent of the budget for making places disabled-friendly, it’s a one-time investment. “How can incredible India be for “we people” unless it’s barrier-free?”
The third traveler Arvind shares “Travelling has always been my first love” he continues, “to travel all over the country by road has been my dream since I was in college. This tour was a tour of self belief & resolve. That I could plan, execute & come back safe & healthy was proof to my ability and therefore, the successful completion of the tour was a stamp on my abilities. Planning had to be meticulous. Along with proper accommodation, choosing tourist destinations was important. No matter what, the journey would be completed, and should any of us need to withdraw, the others would carry on.”
The journey was arduous, the challenges enormous, but we completed the tour,” Arvind said. The coffee table book has pictures speaking of the adventures. Inspiring more people with limitations was the main objective. We completed the journey without a whiff of illness, which is a standing testimony to our planning and pre-tour preparation.”
The fourth among this fearless four team was me. This tour was a dream come true. I always wanted to explore our country, places which my family visited, but due to lack of infrastructure and facilities I never could. This tour came as a lifetime opportunity. My family thought it was a crazy idea. Initially I got a bit discouraged due to my family’s concern but when my friends and mentors encouraged us, we were motivated and went ahead. We got a warm welcome from everyone we met during our journey and it has been very overwhelming experience for me”.
Besides the tourist places, some of the main universities were also on our agenda, because we believe that students with disabilities should be able to pursue higher education easily. We visited a few like universities of Mizoram, Tezpur, Kashmir, Patna, Itanagar , Pondicherry and so on.
It was impressive to find that Tejpur University campus in Assam was accessible upto 80% with disabled friendly rooms in hostel too.
Jadavpur University has a special cell which works on facilities for students with disabilities. Some of the buildingin campus are accessible with a disabled friendly toilet. They also provide audio cassettes and cds for the visual impaired students who enroll for higher studies.
Mizoram University- The hilly terrain of Aizwal has not stopped them from making the university accessible. They have gradual ramps all over the university. This is a true example of where there is a will there is a way.
Pondicherry University is worth special mention because in 2007 it received an award for being the most disabled friendly university.
In Ladakh, we trekked to a height of 18,000 feet and touched the snow. It was a dream come true. Leh, where there is less electricity, no infrastructure, mountainous topography, snowfall most of the times, less technology, extreme climatic conditions, even in such a scenario they are fantastic host when it comes to tourism.
Sunita posing triumphantly at highest peak of Khardungla
Chennai- Vallurvar Kottam – One of the heritage structures in Chennai. The auditorium at Valluvar Kottam is said to be the largest in Asia and can accommodate about 4000 people. Post access audit by our team during our tour, Sukriti Foundation a local NGO, followed up persistently with the Valluvarkottam authorities and a permanent ramp was constructed. Hats off to Sukriti’s efforts.
Jagannath Puri/ Tirupati & Jyotiba Kolhapur- Visiting religious places in some states was not a pleasant experience. Like when we visited the famous Jagannath Puri and Tirupati temples we were not allowed to enter on our wheelchairs. Infact we were standing outside Jagannath Puri temple for more than 2 hours trying to convince the authorities to let us in. But it was a big letdown.
On other hand we were welcomed and allowed to enter the temple with dignity at Jyotiba & Mahalaxmi temples Kolhapur. Friends point to be noted here is that even these temples are not accessible but the authorities were very cooperative and helpful.
The roads in Lucknow impressed us with their perfectly leveled pavements, ramps and railings in place.
In Veli Village, Trivandrum, we took a boat ride. The boats were not disabled-friendly, but we had a staff of 17 to help us.
While we even dipped our feet in the sea at Pondicherry thanks to the ramp leading right till the water, on the other hand we watched the sunrise in Kanyakumari.
But the most adventurous incident took place in Majuli, Assam. To cross the Brahmaputra, one must take a boat that also transports your car. We crossed the river with our Innova on board. Owing to the size of the boat, the Innova was parked perpendicular to the length of the boat. While alighting, our driver panicked, and our car could have fallen into the river. After much efforts & spine chilling hours of labour, we were pulled to safety.
The major challenge while travelling by road is absence of disabled friendly toilets on highways. As an exception we found Ghar Outlet, which is a Bharat Petroleum Corp initiative towards making road travel more comfortable across sections of the society. Their outlets have clean restaurants, accommodations & restrooms which are accessible. We should have more such outlets on inter state and intra state highways. With facilities such as these road transport would become easier for all.
Transport (Metro Train)- its not only the tourist destinations or hotels but also important to have the accessible transport. None of the trains or railway platforms are disabled friendly, hence travelling by trains is a big challenge for disabled people. We were happy to travel by train in Bangalore by metro rail at MG Rd station. It was a different kind of independence that we felt and that too which was so economical.
Though traveling by air is most suitable but an expensive option, there is lack of communication between Aviation Ministry, Airlines & Airports Authority. Most of them are clueless about the guidelines & facilities provided to passengers with disabilities.
Besides the infrastructural facilities we also felt that all the information related to disabled friendly facilities should be put on the respective websites. Whether it is trains, universities, colleges, tourist destinations, hotels etc. Some of the accessible features that we found in these places had no such mention on their websites. We have emphasized about the same to all those concerned.
We travelled to show the world that just because we use wheelchair,it doesn’t mean one cannot travel and see beautiful places.
With a few positive changes on the roll we are happy to see seeds of our efforts sprouting slowly.
Together let us make our country, India, a tourist destination that is accessible and BARRIER FREE for ALL.
Please Note: The accessibility status of the places mentioned in the blog are a few year old when the road trip happened. We hope the status of accessibility at these places have improved for the better.