Neha Arora, 35, founder, Planet Abled
- National award for most innovative and unique tourism product, given by the union ministry of tourism, went to planet abled in 2019
- Over 1,000 tourists from 15 foreign countries have been served by the company
She quit a lucrative MNC job to work on making travel and tourism a friendlier experience for the physically challenged. It was a big challenge for Neha Arora, who resigned from Adobe and launched Planet Abled on January 1, 2016. It was also a personal mission for Neha, who comes from a family that has faced challenges while travelling. “My father is blind and my mother is on a wheelchair,” she says. “As kids, we didn’t travel much—it was always about school picnics and the homes of our grandparents. When we grew up and started travelling as a family, we faced a lot of issues in terms of accessibility and the kind of leisure activities available. There were instances when we had travelled 2,000 miles only to realise that the place is not accessible.” There came a point when her parents stopped travelling, saying they were unable to enjoy the experience due to inaccessibility and social insensitivity. “Very little of infrastructure is in place. Even at one of the Unesco World Heritage sites, which claims to have accessible toilets, it is mere tokenism,” Neha adds.
The germ of the idea was inside her all along, but when she decided to set up Planet Abled, a company specialising in organising tours for the physically challenged, she realised it would not be easy. The concept that everyone, including the physically challenged, needs to experience activities with family or friends away from home is yet to develop in India. “I started by talking to people about the kind of wholesome experiences that would suit them. I looked at the fears that stopped them from taking the plunge and the efforts required to make such travel possible for each disability,” says Neha. “We work on the concept of ‘universal design’, focusing on giving people with different disabilities a platform to come together with the non-disabled and create an inclusive group.”
Since Neha had retired parents, giving up her job was tough. Another challenge was to convince people with disabilities, and sometimes their parents, that they could travel just like anyone else. “The hardest part has been to make people aware that accessible travel is possible. At many places, where there are no ramps, we had to procure portable ramps,” she adds. The tour needs to be customised for every disability to enable a wholesome experience for everyone. With Planet Abled, a person can travel with family and friends or solo, or go on a romantic holiday. It organises tours around themes such as heritage, cultural immersion, adventure, wellness and spirituality, also for institutions or groups, at more than 40 destinations in the Indian subcontinent, and in a few countries elsewhere.
“Since the start of Planet Abled, the challenges have just changed faces and forms and have helped us grow to where we are today,” says Neha. “Finding hotels with multiple accessible rooms is getting easier, but slowly. Once we go and tell them about the need for accessibility, they are helpful, but it would take a long time to put accessibility and universal design in the DNA of this country. Facilities at various monuments in India are not disabled-friendly, but they are improving gradually. For example, the accessible toilet at Qutub Minar is now functional and clean. Even the staff comes and asks if you need any assistance. But we still have a long way to go.”
If a place is not accessible, then she writes to the authorities to make changes so that the infrastructure is in place in the long run.
The first Planet Abled trip in January 2016 is Neha’s most memorable one too. There were 20 people with various disabilities and 20 without disabilities to explore the heritage of Delhi. A friend had suggested that the first step was often the most difficult. “‘Just launch it and see what happens,’ he had said,” she recalls. “It went better than I expected. All the travel buddies in the first tour were my friends, but I never expected 25 of them would turn up to support me. A person who could not walk traversed a distance of 400 km to attend the six-hour tour.”
Then she arranged a rafting trip requested by a 70-year-old aunt who was on a wheelchair since the age of 11. Thirty adventure experts had rejected the idea before. “We even made a blind traveller do zip-lining across the Ganga, solo,” Neha says. The company also organises team-building excursions for batches of disabled IAS officers. “These platforms give people an opportunity to interact and understand the challenges of a person having a disability different from theirs,” she adds.