Neha Arora had never imagined that she would be facing a mob of devotees in a temple, insisting her disabled parents to follow a ‘dress code’, using religion as an excuse to make it hard for her family to enter a place of worship. It was disheartening, but not new. They insisted that her parents, both persons with disability (Arora’s father is blind, and her mother is a wheelchair user), not sit on the steps of the temple but queue up as any other visitor. If you’ve ever stood in a queue to any temple, you’ll know that the jostle-and-shove routine is unforgiving. Arora and her sister had faced hostility on many occasions while travelling with their parents, but none to a degree where they lost enthusiasm to step out of their home again for a holiday.
The Arora sisters are not ones to back down. The incident was the first step to a road map of travel planning services for people with disability. Arora launched Planet Abled on 1 January 2016 to try and remove disability as a barrier for anyone who wants to explore India.
As children, Arora and her sister never travelled with their disabled parents, but as young working professionals they made travel as an integral part of their lives. Each trip was fraught with easily solvable obstacles, but the frustration lay in biases, reactions and shallow intentions to make the Indian travel scape more disabled-friendly.
Once Planet Abled was born in Arora’s head, she spent three years researching every aspect of travel in India through a disability prism and was determined to make a change. “I spent nights in all major airports, counting the number of disabled travellers. Data from hotels was fitted into my plan and I also interviewed people with disabilities to find solutions,” says Arora.
The first trip had 42 sign-ups and 22 people with disabilities of different kinds and other travel enthusiasts without disabilities turning up for the six-hour heritage walk to the Mehrauli Archaeological Park and Qutab Complex in Delhi. The integration was a welcome change, and the trip was a success.
“One of the biggest challenges for people with disabilities is not the physical hazards, but the social ones. People are hesitant to interact in fear of saying something inappropriate or insensitive. But only social interactions can break down this wall, where people stop seeing their disability as nothing more than a physical feature. The first trip gave me a significant push to continue after seeing some barriers fall,” says Arora.
India has never been a friendly landscape for people with disabilities. The lack of ramps for wheelchairs, information in Braille for the visually impaired, signages for the deaf, or even railings for daily navigation impairs accessibility. These barriers are even more prominent when it comes to leisure activities.
When planning a rafting trip, Arora met resistance from more than 30 operators. Finally, one of them agreed. The rafting trip is a staple on the calendar now, along with heritage, romantic, culture, wildlife, day trips and cruises.
Arora has helped more than 500 disabled travellers from over 15 countries realize their dream of experiencing unique destinations and forging new friendships while on these journeys.
Travel is supposed to do more than just satiate wanderlust. “Planet Abled has been able to trigger a ripple effect, helping people to develop and spread a more inclusive attitude, injecting many disabled people with newfound confidence. More practically, it has made partner operators aware of a whole new set of people who want to explore the world,” says Arora.
But, beyond the economics, the company has received inspiring accolades and heartwarming testimonials from travellers. An aircraft engineer with a severe spinal injury from Brazil traversed 13 cities in India and Nepal, a disabled couple from Australia celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary by visiting the Taj Mahal, and a 70-year-old woman felt the thrill of bouncing down the Ganga’s rapids in a raft. These are few of the feats that disabled travellers took on under Arora’s care.
Accolades have not stopped flowing for the 35-year-old Delhi-based entrepreneur. She was commended for “best innovative practices” in the world by the Zero Project Conference 2018 at United Nations, Vienna.
“The spotlight from the awards pales in comparison to the calls from people. I got a call from a solo traveller on a trip I had organised for him to Corbett National Park. He called to tell me that it was his birthday and the trip was self-gifted. But he also had a complaint—that he was now addicted to travel, and I had given him a fresh lease of life in so many other quarters,” she says. “That’s the kind of compliment I look forward to every day.”
Women on Wheels explores stories of women travel entrepreneurs.