For Neha Arora, a family vacation with her parents, who are suffering from physical disability, is always more of a challenge than a leisure activity. Most, if not all, holiday destinations in India are marked by an utter lack of infrastructure and facilities for the differently-abled. In a conversation with Guardian 20, the 33-year-old tells us how her not so good travel experiences led to the inception of Planet Abled, a first-of-its-kind platform that organises customised tours for the differently-abled. 

Recalling her childhood, Arora confides that unfortunately for her as a kid, travel was always about school picnics and grandparents’ houses—since her father is visually-impaired and mother is a wheelchair user.

“When I grew up and started travelling, as a family, we would face a lot of issues in terms of accessibility and the kind of leisure activities available when we travelled. There came a point when my parents stopped travelling, saying that they were not able to enjoy, and that it was always a hassle dealing with the inaccessibility and insensitivity of our society,” said Arora.

It was then that she started looking for solutions, only to be disappointed as there seemed to be none. She finally decided to take matters in her own hand, thinking of this as a general problem faced by the different-abled across India.

“I could not have waited till eternity to have the government make the country more accessible. Every day at work was like, if not now then when? Then I started talking to more and more people and researching on what kind of experiences would suit them and give them a wholesome travelling experience. What were the fears and what stopped them from taking that plunge? What efforts would be needed to make travel possible for them?”

After working for more than two years on the project, she finally left her job at Adobe in November 2015 and officially launched Planet Abled on 1 January 2016.

The platform gives people with disability the freedom to travel.

Talking about the hurdles faced while executing the idea, she said, “The hardest part I feel has been that though there is a market, those people had to be made aware at first that yes, accessible travel is possible for the differently-abled. While I was doing my customer validation work for Planet Abled, I realised everyone wanted to go out and enjoy and experience the beautiful world out there, but people with disabilities were doubtful that if it was really possible.

“I had to talk to so many parents to let their adult kids come out alone and enjoy. Then, since there was no existing model, finding the right people as moderators and guides who would like to take that extra mile and get trained by us before being part of this tour was another. We face a lot of challenges while organising tours but I believe these are only helping us to bring about the required change, one place/person at a time.”

India as a society is either too sympathetic or too insensitive to the plight of the disabled. People with disabilities are not considered part of the mainstream and when it comes to indulging in travel and leisure activities, the road ahead is even more difficult. Then there are over protective families who often out of concern do more harm than good by not allowing the differently-abled to travel independently.

India as a society is either too sympathetic or too insensitive to the plight of the disabled. People with disabilities are not considered part of the mainstream and when it comes to indulging in travel and leisure activities, the road ahead is even more difficult.

When asked how she handles the responsibility that comes with her work, Arora said, “It is stressful, it is challenging, because ultimately, the travellers should go back home with memories that last a lifetime. When you can fulfil the travel dreams of so many people, who once thought travel is not possible for them, it’s all worth it. The smiling faces are worth all the stress in the world.”

Explaining how a tour for the differently-abled is organised, she said, “We work with the concept of ‘Universal Design’, focusing on giving people with different disabilities and the non-disabled, a platform to come together, to create an inclusive group for a unique human interaction.

“We believe in the concept of ‘everything is for everyone’, and just plug in the support gaps a person with disability would need to have a wholesome experience. We totally consider them as regular travellers, providing facilities and support where ever required.”

She says that the central purpose of Planet Abled is social inclusion. The whole concept is based on the fact that travel is not a privilege but a basic human right.

“We do a mix of all sorts of tours, be it local city tours, or adventure tours like rafting, zip-lining and trekking, spiritual or wellness tours, community driven experiences in Rajasthan, Delhi, UP, Himachal, Punjab, Kerala, wildlife parks, Jammu and Kashmir, Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry and Aurovile, Madhya Pradesh, Uttrakhand, and special cultural festivals across various states are also organised annually.

“These are a mix of group scheduled departures and custom tours as some people want to travel solo or with their family or partner or friends. Apart from these, we have periodical get-togethers called ‘Greet Meet’ wherein we barge in large numbers at public places like coffee shops, pubs, lounges, community centres and pottery workshops to just have fun. This makes the public aware of the existence of people with disabilities.”

Talking about the lack of disabled-friendly infrastructure in the country, Arora said, “For physical infrastructure, how would architects build accessible places, if universal design and accessibility is not part of their course. Ramps, lifts with braille buttons and audio outputs are so few. It’s ignorance that they don’t build things based on universal
design for everyone.

“When it comes to tech accessibility and availability of information in accessible formats, we as a country are at a very nascent stage.”

Hotels and tourist places are also not sensitised to deal with a traveller with disability. Speaking on the tours she has organised so far, Arora said that over 300 happy customers with various disabilities have already travelled using Planet Abled.

“When the first tour was launched, they came in with all apprehensions, a 40-year-old person from Bangalore, who then worked with an IT company in Delhi, said he never thought he could experience such a day in his life ever.

“When people come and tell you that they had been living in the same city for 20 years but have never visited a heritage monument, you know you are making an impact.

“A 70-year-old woman had been with us on some of the tours, trusted us and asked us to create a rafting tour for her. We are proud to have conducted the first ever rafting tour for people with disabilities in India. This trip also had a blind person zip-line across the Ganga solo.

“Another happy customer is a blind government officer from Guwahati. He gifts himself a solo travel trip across Uttrakhand on his birthday, to break out of the shackles of a restrictive environment he had been living in. After he went back, he started learning the guitar, because this trip gave him the confidence to go and venture out to do anything he wanted to do.

“Recently we successfully culminated a 17-day tour for an aircraft engineer on wheelchair from Brazil. It spanned across two countries, five states and 13 cities. This was his life’s first vacation and his first travel
outside his country.”

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