‘Beyond Barriers’ – Meet the team.

In September 2011, Arvind, Nishant, Suneeta and Neenu took off for a challenging road tour of India, and ended up at the end of 84 days having covered 19000 kilometres across 40 cities and 28 state capitals.They visited a minimum of two tourist destinations in each state. They saw monuments, waterfalls, villages, palaces, beaches and forts. They stayed in hotels where sometimes it was hard to use the toilet facilities or go to eat a meal at a restaurant. They encountered some good people and they encountered others who still have a lot to learn, a long way to go.

Cherrapunji

The team at Nohkalikai Falls, Cherrapunji

 

They are all wheelchair users and they undertook their adventures in their jeeps, with a crew, and with the support of family, friends and others who shared some part of a big dream that is theirs. They shared their experiences through a coffee table book,’Beyond Barriers – Incredible India Tour’, and through an accessibility audit report on accessible tourism in India.

The incredible India tour

Beyond Barriers – The Incredible India Tour

The audit report based on the experiences of the team has mapped out not just infrastructure and facilities but also to a great extent, the attitude of people, staff and management at various tourist locations towards PwDs (Persons with Disabilities) across India.

The team has shared their perspective of access and usability across transport, travel, car parking, accommodation (rooms, height of bed), activities for tourists, food courts, ticket counters, toilet facilities (grab rails, placement of commode etc.) communication signages, use of Braille, audio announcements etc.

The report shares many experiences and highlights conflicts, contrasts, cooperation as well as the lack of it, while making a ‘dhobi’ list of infrastructure issues. For example, sometimes there are ramps without rails,such as in MP, at Bhopal Haat, or ramps difficult to use because of the steep angle (as at Amber Fort, Jaipur). Also in MP, often heritage structures such as Jami Masjid are inaccessible for PWDs. Sometimes rooms are too small or doors such as bathroom doors are too narrow to enable manoeuvring of wheelchairs. Activities of particular interest are often not accessible to PWDs, such as Shikara rides or stays on the Dal Lake in Srinagar.

The team has done accessibility ratings on a rating scale of 0-5 with 0 being ‘completely inaccessible’ and 5 being ‘completely accessible’. They have included caregiver and family assistance parameters in the access rating.

The audit has also managed to reveal the often disconnected thought processes that have gone into the creation of rules, regulations and infrastructure. For example, the mall road in Simla allows special vehicles for the elderly, but none for PwDs. The parking lot is far away. Also for example, there is a restaurant in Shillong where the menu is also in Braille, but poor access to the restaurant for PwDs reduces the overall value of such a feature.

Given this summarised distillation based on the book and the report, many thoughts come to mind. We got in touch with the team behind the effort and over email did a Q&A session with them that we’d like to share.

(Thank you – Beyond Barriers team – for taking the time out for the email exchange that was a follow up to our reading. Apart from the questions below, please do speak of anything else that comes to mind that you’d like to share with us and readers of this piece.)

1. Personally speaking, for each team member, what did this tour signify for you, what impact did it have on you? (What were the reactions of family members, friends and colleagues when the idea first came up?) Please share your stories of encouragement and discouragement as influenced by others. What sort of attitudes and behaviours have you encountered from people you know as well as strangers during this tour?

(Neenu Kewlani) This tour for me was a dream come true, I have been dreaming about this last 10 years. I always wanted to explore our country, go to places my family visited, but due to lack of infrastructure and facilities I could never travel. Hence this tour came as a lifetime opportunity, a dream come true for me. My family thought it was a crazy idea. Initially they refused to let me be part of this. There was a lot of concern in terms of my health, safety etc. Later when my team members and their parents convinced them, they agreed.

Initially I got a bit discouraged due to my family’s worry about my safety and health but my friends, my mentors, cousins, encouraged me a lot and motivated me to go ahead. My friends whom we met during the journey were very excited about this tour and very proud of us. We got a very warm welcome from everyone we met whether it was known or unknown people.

(Sunita Sancheti) Travel is a very important aspect of each persons life, it can be for work, recreation, social visits or religious ceremonies. I have been staying in Mumbai from birth and all my family & cousins have been staying at different places in the country, it has been difficult and expensive to travel. I am basically a nature freak, so again travelling to beautiful places has always been a dream. I had travelled earlier also a lot before my spine injury at the age of 16. I always felt that there would be many more like me who would want to explore this beauty & enjoy travel, so when this opportunity came of finding the accessibility level in the country for people with disabilities, I took the opportunity and would still like to work more on issues related to disabilities. My family was concerned as I had two major surgeries in a span of one year just before this travel, but at the same time they felt that it was an life time opportunity for me to fulfil my dream of working on accessible tourism.

(Nishant Khade) I have always been adventurous and loved to travel a lot. Unfortunately, after the accident it couldn’t be continued. One day during chit chat with my similar kind of friend, a thought came in mind, “Let’s do something adventurous” and decided India Tour by road. Thus the old enthusiasm got refreshed.

After sharing the idea with family members, luckily there was no discouragement as they knew about my passion and that I will be accompanied by my friend (Arvind). Thanks to my family & friends!

During the journey, we met different people at different places but all were kind hearted. Especially, I would like to mention the North East people – so loving & caring. Infact, I enjoyed a lot though these regions were very hectic and risky for travelling by road.

(Arvind) Travelling has always been my first love. To travel all over the country by road has been my dream since I was in college. I had always dreamed about travelling by road. This tour was a tour of self belief & resolve. That I could plan, execute & come back safe & healthy was proof to my ability and therefore, the successful completion of the tour was a stamp on my abilities.

My friends & family were source of constant encouragement and not once did anyone of them believe that we would not be able to complete the journey. We encountered many people throughout this tour, who were mostly appreciating of our efforts & also helping.

Jaipur

At Amer Fort, Jaipur

2. What were your experiences with other tourists and strangers you met at these locations? For example, in Sikkim, where all offices were closed during Diwali?

Our experience has been very good. Everywhere we went the local NGOs, media and even the local govt (disability commissioners, governors, chief ministers) welcomed us warmly and supported our cause. The most memorable welcome was by PHA international Gujarat, Himalaya on wheels team at Leh Ladakh.

We were aware that at places where it would be holidays it would be difficult to contact govt officials and at Sikkim we had no NGO also so it was a little tuff anyways.

3. At the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, management refused to provide a portable ramp for the team. There is provision for a ramp, but it is for VIPs only. Were you able to take up this experience of lack of cooperation from management, or follow it up in any way? A similar experience happened at the Jagannath Temple in Puri where wheelchairs were not allowed. Did other tourists attempt to help or intervene?

Unfortunately no one tried to help or intervene. Though in Kolkata the local NGO representative Shampa Sengupta tried her best to convince the Victoria Memorial management to provide us with ramp they would not listen at all. Other than this, nowhere did we get any help including Jagannath Puri or Tirupati Balaji.

4. Tell us a bit more about your experiences at Pondicherry University, which (as has been said in your audit report) has been selected as Best Training Institution by the government, for its contribution to the empowerment of persons with disabilities.

The University has a very good ramp and it was easy to access, but as we could not arrange for prior appointment with the vice chancellor we could not find out more details for ourselves.

We would like to mention that our visit to Tezpur university was an eyeopener. A small place in Assam, this university has maximum streams that could be explored and it was accessible. They also have a hostel with a room that is disabled friendly. The auditorium is also accessible. We have requested them to make their website also disabled friendly & add on a few more signages in Braille.

5. At every location the team had fixed a contact point, prior to arrival. Most often an NGO. Was this difficult to do? How did you do this? In your recommendations you have suggested that NGOs in different cities take up transport/taxi services for PwDs. Have any NGOs/others spoken to you about this? What are the challenges for regular taxi and car hire services making the required modifications both of attitude and facilities to improve services for PwDs?

When we uploaded our itinerary on our beyond barriers page, we had a very good response from all the networking groups who wanted to work on the same issue with us and they all agreed that together we can do better and it would be more impactful. It was very smooth to make a contact with local NGOs since we have known them for years working together in the same sector. We mailed them our itinerary and our requirement and even spoke to some.

There is a lot of need for accessible taxi service in each city, each state, however for an NGO to start this as a service is a big responsibility, this requires business viability, manpower, supervision and lots of other formalities which makes it difficult for an NGO to run this. In Bengaluru, Mobility India is already providing this service.

6. Are you planning any tours/events of this kind in the near future? How would you like more people to participate in your travels and experiences? Also could you tell us a bit about the other crew members who were with you through the tour?

We have seen very many PwD’s wanting to travel & have also travelled after this trip and many more people must have got encouraged to move out of their houses and be more independent in their lives for work, education & socializing. Yes we are definitely planning to work on this issue in other states and take this forward. We want more and more travellers with disability to explore our country and thus increase the visibility of our sector.

We had our caretakers and drivers with us touring the whole country throughout the 84 days. It was tough for them to leave their families behind and help us day after day inspite of being tired themselves. They were our strongest support and pillars based on whom we could manage to complete this tour successfully.

Yes, about the crew members we must not forget to thank all of them. The mission could not have been completed without their support. Main thing, all crew members did enjoy themselves a lot. As all were travelling in my car, we didn’t pass a single moment without enjoyment. All were so happy and enthusiastic that even today they are excitedly waiting for the next adventure.

A special word for our caretakers & drivers. For 84 days, day in & day out to travel and also take care of us, was not easy, but due to the new & different experiences that we faced everywhere, all of them used to look forward to the next day. Their enthusiasm also rubbed off on all of us & ours on them.

To connect with the team, and/or to order copies of their book, email them at access4all.social.foundation@gmail.com
The link to their Facebook page is http://www.facebook.com/fearlessfour?ref=ts&fref=ts

Cruise boat

On a cruise boat in Goa

5 comments

  1. Nirav Dave says:

    Hats off to the team for their self-belief and enthusiasm. I wish them and their caregivers the very best for the future adventures.

  2. Radhika says:

    Brought tears of joy to my eyes. Salute to them, the caregivers and drivers! It’s a pity that commercial tourist places have shown no consideration and in times of need, other tourists also refused to intervene. With your permission, can I share this link with some friends, on email? I want as many people as possible to read this.

    1. admin says:

      Radhika, please go right ahead and share – and thank you for responding as you have. Will be happy to keep you posted on any further news related to the Beyond Barriers team and Caregivers Link. Do also share with us any responses and feedback from your friends and contacts.

  3. Ramana Rajgopaul says:

    Very inspiring and at the same time frustrating that as a nation we are unable to provide for simple changes that can make life easier for PWDs.

    1. admin says:

      We agree. A little awareness, thinking and sensitivity would go a long way. Good to hear from you Ramana. Thank you for posting in.

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