On the question of whether he had travelled to any place outside Delhi, Abhishek smirked, moving his head down to the left. “I once went to Bihar. Home of my maternal grandmother, three- years- ago,” he said. Except for that one expedition to Bihar, Abhishek has never travelled. He is in his late 20s and is visually impaired, pursuing a course to become a professional masseur.
However, Abhishek wants to travel, he wants to feel the smell of different places and wants to touch mountains. But so far he couldn’t. The obvious reason is the accessibility of tourist destinations, though, in the western countries accessible tourism is a relatively developed industry providing “accessible tourism” for people with special needs like persons with disabilities, senior citizens etc. While in India, it is yet to take off, because of lack of awareness and sensitivity toward various disabilities is creating a big hurdle.
As per the estimation of the world health organisation, over 15 per cent of the world's population lives with some form of disability. In India, 2.2 per cent of the population has some form of disability as per a National Statistics Office report of 2019. Independent estimates suggest that numbers are much higher.
Moreover, there is no data on how many people with disabilities travel every year. So there is a perception that people with disabilities don’t travel alone. Neha Arora, the founder of Planet Abled, an organization working on providing accessible travel solutions, believes that there is a lack of awareness and understanding of disability.
For instance, in the hospitality establishments, Arora said, “The understanding of accessibility is limited. They will only make ramps or at max a toilet – because it is required to meet compliance. But they still think that people with disabilities don't travel or people with disabilities don't travel alone; people with disabilities are just limited to Wheelchair users."
But they do travel and wheelchair users only form a segment of persons with disability. “Majority of people with disabilities, including visible or invisible disabilities, don’t use wheelchairs. So that conversation around accessibility is at the primitive stage.”
Hema Sain, a researcher, who also has a disability-related arthritis, stresses upon lack of accessibility to tourist destinations in India. “As a person, we work in an organic way. If we want to go to a restaurant. We will discuss this with our group first. Then we will go. Because we know that accessibility is an issue,” she said. Sain thinks that, in India, if one has any locomotive disability, then taking public transport is almost impossible. “So how will a person with disability travel? In my case I book a cab, so, it is a case of affordability.”
She added, “Making a ramp alone doesn’t make a place accessible, because that too requires a lot of considerations like what size and length.” Amit Yadav, who is a lawyer and has a disability, recounted his experience during a college trip to hill station. “When this idea of going on college trip emerged. I right away dismissed it. Because I know how tough it is. But my friends insisted I went. They assisted me throughout my trip,” he said adding, “there was no infrastructure, had they not helped me, I could never have imagined going to a place like that.”
In 2019, Kerala started the ‘Barrier-Free Tourism Project’ making 120 destinations in the state disability-friendly – one of the pioneering efforts to make tourism accessible in India. Which got its global recognition making a special mention as an "Emerging Global Destination" by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO). With this Kerala became the first state to implement, the UNWTO call – “tourism for all”.
Not just the accessibility, there are multiple other challenges that a person with disabilities face; like social stigma. Arora points out, “Sometimes I have to reach out to parents of 40-year-olds and convince them to send their child to visit monuments in the same city that they have been living all through their life.”
However, “once persons with disabilities realise that there is someone who understands our needs and caters to our needs, we can trust them, then they start coming to us like I want to do rafting or I want to do it as a team, Can you make it happen for us?” she adds.