About a year ago I decided to take a leap of faith and journey ‘home’ to India. Being a wheelchair user, this thought had always terrified me. But being in my mid-20s, born and raised in Aotearoa and having my only image of the homeland from pictures and stories, I figured if not now, then when?
In my initial research about accessible travel in India, I came across a company called Planet Abled. They organise customised travel plans for tourists with disabilities with any access need, including accessible accommodation, a driver, tour guide, local sign language interpreter or travel buddy – just a few examples!
By this point I had already decided to leave my electric freedom behind and take my manual wheelchair with me instead. Everyone told me there are steps everywhere and I should try to keep my movements as flexible as possible. I realise this is a privilege I have, but for me, being able to sit in any car with my collapsible chair and having my chair lifted into shops was the safest and most logical decision.
When we arrived in Mumbai, our driver was waiting at the airport to take us to our hotel, which we had no issues with. Over the next four days, we went on our various adventures to historical monuments and shopping spots. The first thing I noticed was that even though the built environment was almost entirely inaccessible, the people made it accessible for me. In a city where a huge part of population lives below the poverty line, I found the people to be very accepting about everyone’s differences and therefore willing to help when they noticed the need.
Few people looked twice at my wheelchair, but when I needed help, at least five people would come to help before disappearing back into the chaos without me having a chance to express my gratitude. Considering all the social and economic issues India is currently dealing with, I was beautiful to see how the people make things work under such circumstances, both for themselves and for others.
Following Mumbai, we spent 10 days in our village in Gujarat before flying up to New Delhi. Here we spent a lot of time in famous tourist sites, such as the 700-year-old Qutub Minar and Raj Ghat (Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial site). Ramps had been built in and were therefore easy to navigate.
It was the same situation in Agra, the city of the beautiful Taj Mahal. The Planet Abled team knew exactly where to go, where the best spots were, and took great photos. All hotels were perfect – very accessible and the service was great.
The drivers were super friendly and helpful, as were the storytellers.
I really fell in love with India. It was such a beautiful experience and place. Every place we went to had its own unique personality which I loved.
My time in India showed me what can happen when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, and let our common humanity take over. It’s a team effort, but the outcome filled me with hope. I’m looking forward to coming back soon to explore other parts of India.
Latifa lives with her family in New Zealand and works in the disability advocacy space. She has her roots in India.