Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Joy of Making Travel More Accessible

With Planet Abled, the enterprising Neha Arora has created a one-stop travel shop for the disabled.

  • Joy of Making Travel More Accessible

By Rimme Dirchi

The journey of Planet Abled, a company that provides travel solutions to the disabled, began when its founder Neha Arora was a little girl. Trained to be an engineer, 33-year old Arora spent nine years in the corporate sector, but she always knew what she wanted to do in life. With disabled parents—her mother is wheelchair-bound and her father is blind —Arora believes there is a sense of discrimination when it comes to access to public spaces. Arora explains: “As kids, my sister and I wanted to travel with our parents. All of us shared our love for travel, despite many complications along the way. We have always been there to take care of our parents, but I realised there was more that I could do. Everyone loves to travel, including people with disabilities, that is where the idea of Planet Abled germinated.’’

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Given that public infrastructure is still not very accessible to people like her parents, Arora wanted to start a conversation on social inclusion. She hosts workshops on the subject with different entities and even engages with not for profits to create more awareness. Public transport in India, like buses and trains, are devoid of accessible platforms for people with disabilities. Even when it comes to every day work commute, there are many challenges one faces with public transport. In such scenarios, travelling can sometimes feel like a  luxury, she says.

Planet Abled intends to bring universal accessibility to the forefront. “We make customised, tailor-made travel happen for anyone who is interested. We have had group trips with people with great mix of all kinds of disabilities and these have been enriching interactions for everyone involved. Whether it is about visiting heritage sites, religious spots, and regular get-togethers, everyone learns a lot about the environment and even about each other’s lives,’’ Arora adds.

As a society, we are aware of the taboos involving disabilities. While there are efforts being made by the government on policy level, at the execution level there are not enough mechanisms in place for these reforms to organically fall in place. For instance, apart from enabling a travel platform to people with disabilities, what Planet Abled also tries to encourage is a sense of inclusion. For this, Planet Abled organises group meetings in restaurants over dinner, walks to heritage sites across Delhi, apart from the usual workshops. Neha says, “…the idea is to encourage and allow everyone to see each other with a genuine sense of curiosity. We encourage conversations between people who have never stepped out of their comfort zones or homes to just hang out at clubs or go out for walks. We want them to be seen and in turn, we want them to see as much as possible.’’ 

It is well known that changes take some time to take place and it seldom happens overnight. Many among the developed and developing countries are making efforts to make their infrastructure disability friendly. India is no exception; recently, Kerala Education Minister C Raveendranath has announced that the Kerala government is planning to construct autism parks for the children with disabilities in all the 140 assembly constituencies in the state in the coming three years. Professionals will be appointed in these parks to train children for their overall engagement and development. These are baby steps in the direction towards bridging these spaces closer. 

However, currently when the conversations are picking up pace in India, it is important to note that India is nowhere close to becoming universally inclusive. One of the earliest day-trips organised by Planet Abled was to Qutub Minar and the company hit its first hurdle because the washroom for the disabled was locked and nobody in the premises had a key for it. A year later, however, the washrooms in Qutub Minar are clean and open to visitors. While it may seem like a small feat, it happens to be a victory nevertheless for Arora. “I faced similar problems when we went to religious places. I think overall, there is plenty of room to still work on for improvement,’’ she believes.

It has been a journey like no other for Neha Arora and Planet Abled, as there are no previous set models that she could emulate and take lessons from, when she started out this venture. At the end of two years, Arora has 300 happy customers. Planet Abled organises both group tours and customised ones for people who wish to travel by themselves. 

While the idea to set up a company was always in her mind, it was a matter of taking that step towards this exciting adventure trip of her own. After a nine year long career in the corporate sector with multinational companies, she took the plunge to strike out on her own. Like all entrepreneurs, she too was assailed with some doubts, but starting from her first city trip to this day, the numbers have not disappointed her.

“While I was working with other companies, I spent time doing my research and took up job profiles that allowed me to learn more with my future venture in mind. I enjoyed high salary that my work permitted and I saved portions from it. When I launched Planet Abled, I was very well prepared despite the nerves. I relied on savings and on grants from fellowships that I had taken up. It gives me immense satisfaction to meet so many of my clients and hear their stories and  learn about them and my own self,’’ she explains humbly.

Mohit Gupta is an old customer of Planet Abled, is all praises and plans to go on his first solo trip next year. He wants to gift himself a fun trip with the help of Planet Abled, as he is visually impaired. He is among many who have expressed how Planet Abled has helped them get out more and make new friends. “My family has always been protective of me but I informed them about my decision to travel and they have been very supportive. Neha also personally spoke to my family and gave them confidence to support my decision to travel without family. It would be my first trip of this kind,’’ says the 30-year-old.

For Arora, this is personal because several times she has to handhold people, both literally and metaphorically. When most of her clients decide to take the plunge to step out for trips, their parents worry about these decisions. “I speak to families as they worry for very obvious reasons, I help them see that we are here to take care of everything. I even encourage them to come for trips, workshops and for our in-city gatherings,’’ she explains.

Another avid traveller is Pranav Lal. He is fairly famous in his own right, delivering TED Talks and being written about in the media. Lal is well known for being a blind photographer and writer. He is very profound in his selection of words when it comes to expressing himself, “I really enjoy the visual medium and wanted to express myself through my photography and writing. It challenges me and helps me push myself. With Planet Abled, I have gone on heritage walks within the city and experienced history in forts and old world architecture like never before. I also make new friends and just hang out and chit-chat with them. I have expressed my wish to Neha about visiting shipyards in India so I can learn about ships.’’

The uniqueness of Planet Abled lies in its diversity when it comes to clients it caters to. Unlike most other travel service models across the world, where people with disabilities are usually clubbed together with only their own section, let us say, blind groups or groups of children with autism, but at Planet Abled, everyone is welcome to interact with each other on trips so they develop a sense of camaraderie without even realising. They encourage mixed group interactions, making the whole experience unique. Rahul Rawal, 34, is an operations manager with AON and has been wheelchair-bound since childhood. He went on several heritage walks with Planet Abled, before going on a solo trip to Rishikesh last year with aid from Planet Abled.

“A couple of years ago, I was looking for travel packages online for people with disabilities and then I stumbled upon Planet Abled last year. I got in touch with Neha and the rest is history. I have always wanted to travel and I love to write during my spare time. I am wheelchair-bound and my family was very sceptical about letting me travel by myself, but Neha spoke to them personally and they have been very supportive and trusting. I plan to go to Goa sometime early next year with Planet Abled. I also want to visit Landour in Uttarakhand as I am a fan of Ruskin Bond’s work. To me travel is not just about enjoying a new place, it is also about experiencing a sense of self confidence of having done something great for my soul,” says Rahul Rawal.

It is hard to quantify in words what these experiences can mean to everyone who are part of the inspiring Planet Abled journey. Neha likes to goof around and says, “Planet Abled is a travel company started by someone who has never travelled much.’’ All in all, this world is kaleidoscopic and made of myriad hues and nuances, with one better than the next.

 

rimme@outlookindia.com