On a warm Sunday evening in Dilli Haat in South Delhi, cyber security professional Pranav Lal, 37, read out a short story he wrote – Space for Vegetables – to an eager and appreciative audience.
Lal, who is visually-impaired, has written six novellas and several short stories. He was one of many writers, poets, singers and musicians who participated in a two-hour long event at Dilli Haat organised by Planet Abled, a Delhi-based accessible travel company, which encourages and promotes recreational activities for the disabled.
Sunday’s event, said Neha Arora, the founder of Planet Abled, was an effort to bring out the creative side of disabled people, many of whom are into music, and write poetry and prose. One visually-impaired participant recited a Sanskrit poem. Several others read from their blogs, or shared their experiences of growing up with a disability. This was the first time many of them present had performed before an audience. “The idea was to allow them to do what they liked, and we listened,” said Arora.
“I love reading books and enjoy writing quite a bit," said Lal. "For today’s event, I had to figure out the best way to present my story for maximum inclusion.”
By maximum inclusion Lal meant that his reading should have been accessible to even the hearing impaired. He didn’t have to worry – an interpreter communicated the crux of Lal’s, and all other narrations, to the lone hearing-impaired audience member present there.
Excursions for the disabled
The Dilli Haat gathering was the sixth such event organised by Planet Abled this year. Its first – a heritage walk at the Qutub Minar – was organised in January. Similar walks to the Red Fort and Lodi Gardens followed as did a trip to Agra where participants were taken to see the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort. “The Agra tour was customised for a group of wheelchair users who came from Mumbai,” said Arora. “We combined it with a food tour, where the popular Agra Bedmi pooris were served for breakfast, and the famous Ram babu paranthas for lunch.”
Arora quit her job with Adobe Systems last November in order to work full-time with Planet Abled, which she founded in 2014 to promote travel and leisure activities for the disabled, who, according to the 2001 census, comprise 2.1% of India's population. They are often not seen outdoors because of accessibility and other issues.
Arora’s father was in college when an eye inflammation left him completely blind. Her mother, affected by polio in childhood, is wheelchair-bound. Both were employees with the Uttar Pradesh government in Agra, where Arora grew up. While her parents were fond of travelling, vacations ended up being a big hassle. “Many public places were not disabled-friendly,” said Arora. “Travelling in buses and trains was a task due to their inaccessibility, but we could not afford flights. My parents would often feel that they were troubling us and ask me and my sister to go ahead and travel while they stayed home. They were reluctant to travel, given the issues we had to repeatedly face.”
It was this experience that gave birth to Planet Abled.
The accessibility problem
Those who have participated in Planet Abled’s events and excursions credit the group for its dedication towards ensuring that disabled persons can fulfil their recreational needs.
Rahul Rawal, 32, who is wheelchair-bound, told Scroll.in that though there are several travel portals in India, most don’t cater to the disabled. Planet Abled has filled that space. “As a wheelchair user, accessibility is the biggest question on my mind,” said Rawal. “But Planet Abled manages everything really well. I have been a part of three tours with them.”
The group and its volunteers face some frustrating challenges related to accessibility while organising their excursions as India still has a long way to go before the disabled can freely access public transport and public spaces. Initiatives like the Accessible India Campaign – unveiled last December – have been launched for that specific purpose, but it will take time for the results to show.
For instance, at several heritage monuments, the lack of toilets designed for wheelchair users are a problem. “Only the Taj Mahal was better off,” said Arora. “We have to literally pick up wheelchair-bound people and put them on the commode. The males can still manage but female wheelchair users face a very hard time.”
Most heritage monuments also have very steep steps, and no ramps. To counter this common problem, Arora has procured a portable ramp that the group carries during its outings. “Wherever there are steps, the temporary ramp is put up and wheelchair users can easily be wheeled up,” she said.
There are other unique challenges. For instance, Arora is planning a Planet Abled tour of the hills at the moment. While looking for accommodation, she found out that most hotels tend to keep only one disabled-friendly room so it is difficult to accommodate an entire group in one hotel. “We are now forced to look for multiple properties which are nearby so that the group can be coordinated,” said Arora.
Also, wherever there are ramps, at least in the national capital, these are usually made of Delhi quartz stone, a rough cobblestone, with wide gaps between each piece. “The tyres of wheelchairs get stuck in these gaps but nobody in the ASI [Archaeological Survey of India] has really thought about this,” said Arora. “Perhaps it is because these ramps have been made by abled persons who do not understand the exact problems a disabled person may encounter.”
Planet Abled’s volunteers often go to great lengths to understand these problems. For instance, heritage enthusiast Vikramjit Singh Rooprai, who has been roped in to conduct its heritage walks in Delhi, recces the area several times to chart out the best route for all disabled participants before each walk. To prepare for the Qutub Minar excursion, Rooprai visited Mehrauli archaeological park thrice – once sitting on a wheelchair with Arora pushing him – to chart out the best route. This also enabled him to understand what a wheelchair-bound person could see from that height, and he elaborated on those elements during his tour. He conducted a similar recce for the group's trip to the Red Fort.
Rooprai also keeps each participant’s impairment in mind. For instance, he said he doesn’t talk about the colours of various stones with those blind from birth as “I know they do not have an understanding of colour.” Instead, he discusses the elements that the visually-impaired can touch. “I tell them about arches, gates, pillars, carvings and inscriptions… things they can touch and feel,” said Rooprai.
The Planet Abled team provides deaf and mute visitors and their sign-language interpreters with scripts with background and other details of the monuments.
In February, Planet Abled, in collaboration with Delhi Tourism, organised a tour of Delhi’s annual Garden Tourism Festival for around 12 wheelchair-bound and visually-impaired participants. The group received special permission from the tourism and horticulture department that enabled its visually-impaired participants to touch the flowers and bonsais displayed at the Garden of Five Senses in South Delhi.
“A horticulture expert volunteered to explain to our participants how the flowers are grown, pruned, and the weather conditions required,” said Arora. “They could touch the flowers and bonsais to feel their textures.”
Next in line is a pottery workshop, a vacation in the hills and guided tours of museums – a wise decision given Delhi’s sweltering weather at the moment.
The gawker challenge
Arora said that most accessible travel groups focus only on one disability – either visual impairments, motor impairments or hearing and speaking disabilities – as it is more convenient to cater to one group type. Bringing them all together leads to more interaction, she said. “They see people suffering from other disabilities and understand them better.”
She wishes that people, who gawk at the disabled in public spaces, would make an attempt at understanding too. Often, people stare or, in rare cases, pass crude remarks. This attitude is one of the biggest challenges Arora faces.
“When we went to Lodi Gardens, a visually-impaired lady from Mumbai was walking slowly, holding my hand,” said Arora. “We passed by a group of men and one of them exclaimed: ‘Oh my god! Is she blind?’ The lady was elderly and mature, so she handled the situation well. But I felt really hurt,” Arora said. “People in our country are not very aware of these issues.”
Perhaps as more and more disabled people venture outdoors encouraged by initiatives by Planet Abled and other groups, attitudes will finally change.