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A friend of the differently-abled, she takes them on tours and heritage walks

Jyoti Kanyal| Delhi 24 Sep 2016, Vol 7 Issue 39
Ambika Khattar is a bright and accomplished young woman. Having been an ace student in school she went on to secure admission at Delhi University where she discovered a hidden talent – she turned out to be a natural at radio jockeying. 
 
A popular voice on the University’s campus radio Khattar’s talent is appreciated by her teachers and peers alike. But here’s the twist: she is not your average high achiever; Khattar is visually impaired and has had to overcome a lot of barriers to get to a place where she is self assured and well-liked by all. 
 
Neha Arora, an engineer by education, set up Planet Abled that creates tailor-made tours and heritage walks for the differently-abled (Photos: WFS)
 
Despite her exceptional accomplishments, it was not until recently that the young woman felt truly empowered and happy. 
 
Khattar got to experience this extraordinary feeling after she linked up with Planet Abled, a travel company set up by Neha Arora, 31, an engineer by education and traveller by choice. 
 
Travelling can be liberating, empowering, exciting, joyful all at once – and Arora’s innovative venture provides this life-changing experience to the largely forgotten or marginalised differently-abled people by creating tailor-made tours and heritage walks. 
 
“Earlier this year I got in touch with Planet Abled. It not only gave me the opportunity to meet with different kinds of people but also enabled me to try out interesting activities such as pottery making and being part of a sensory tour of the Garden of Five Senses in Delhi. I had loads of fun and learnt new things at the same time,” says Khattar, cheerfully.
 
For Arora, the drive to establish Planet Abled has been very personal. Coming from a home where both her parents have had to deal with disability – her mother has polio from childhood and is wheelchair bound while an infection rendered her father visually impaired when he was in college – she is acutely aware of deprivations and discrimination in the system and fully understands their needs. 
 
“My parents love to travel and, fortunately, my sister and I are there to take care of everything for them. Earlier, when we were younger they used to travel but there was always some problem or the other that they had a tough time dealing with. 
 
“I felt there would be many like my parents who had the desire and zeal to travel but did not have anyone to back them up. With Planet Abled we help them realise their dreams of exploring new horizons,” she elaborates. 
 
With her dedicated team of five on the job, as well as the assistance of keen volunteers like Khattar, Arora has been able to arrange some memorable trips for her “special” clients. 
 
Their first one was a heritage walk at Qutub Minar; this was followed by similar events at the beautiful Lodi Gardens and the iconic Red Fort in the national capital. 
 
Later on, they did a customised tour of Agra for a wheelchair bound group from Mumbai. The excursion included a visit to the magnificent Taj Mahal and the massive Agra Fort besides an amazing food tour where group members got to sample local favourites like bedmi poori and Ram babu’s paranthas. To make sure that everything went off smoothly each group member was accompanied by a volunteer and a facilitator. 
 
Recently, they also put together an event at Delhi’s craft and culture venue Dilli Haat, where disabled participants got to showcase their creative abilities – while some recited poetry and read out their blogs others played an instrument or belted out melodious tunes. 
 
“This event gave an outlet to their creativity, helped them connect with each other and also reach out to people who normally are unaware of and unable to comprehend their state of mind or the challenges they face on a daily basis. We made arrangements for interpreters so that even the hearing-impaired were able to appreciate the goings-on,” shares Arora. 
 
Indeed, being sensitive and inclusive is central to Planet Abled’s functioning, something that is greatly appreciated by their regulars simply because these people don’t otherwise come across such a considerate attitude. 

Planet Abled provides services of interpreters and volunteers to assist the differently-abled travellers during their tours 
 
 
For instance, there are times when Rupmani Chettri, 29, who works as a facilitator in HAQ, a centre for child rights in Delhi, really struggles with her hearing disability. 
 
“Very often people respond to disability that is clearly visible, like those who are unable to walk or see. Others like me who appear ‘normal’ are usually overlooked. 
 
“So whereas in public spaces there will be particular considerations made for the requirements of the physically disabled and the visually impaired, particularly where services and infrastructure is concerned, those of us who can see and walk on our own are expected to fend for ourselves. There are hardly any tourist places where interpreters are available to facilitate us,” she rues. 
 
Consequently, although Chettri could visit a tourist destination and soak in the ambience she never really had the chance to relish the history or the fun anecdotes associated with it. 
 
“After I linked up with Planet Abled and visited Qutub Minar it was as if the place suddenly came alive for me. The presence of a historian and interpreter, who told me about its history, made all the difference. I got an up close and personal look of the beautiful structure and the exquisite calligraphy engraved on it,” she reveals with a bright smile.
 
According to the last Census 2011, the disabled make up 2.21 per cent of the population of the country. Sadly, so far little has been done to make their already hard lives uncomplicated and effortless. 
 
At every level they encounter intolerance, prejudice and inequity, which make survival in itself an uphill task. “Today, there is a critical need to address the issue of inadequate infrastructure as well as facilities to make things comfortable and inclusive for them. At the same time, it is absolutely essential to work towards changing social mindsets which are regressive and discriminatory,” emphasises Arora, who gave up a promising career at software giant Adobe to be able to reach out. 
 
Recently, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that disabled people be called ‘divyang’ instead of ‘viklang’ in Hindi, Asmita Sharma (name changed), who is a regular with Planet Abled’s group tours, was not happy. 
 
Arora gave up a promising career at software giant Adobe to set up Planet Abled
 
“What’s the need for any labels or euphemisms? I am disabled and not ashamed of it. Why make me conscious of my being disabled or ‘different’ by using terms like ‘divyang’?” 
 
Arora agrees that politically correct labels apart there must be a “focus on empowering disabled people to live with dignity”. She opines, “We should work towards designing infrastructure in such a manner that spaces are universally accessible and that disabled people can live like everyone else, without anyone gawking at them as if they were from another planet. Using another word for them would just single them out.”
 
Arora is doing her bit to bring a sense of fun and normalcy to their lives. When she decided to take a group to a flower show in Delhi her team went all out to get special permission so that the visually impaired members got to touch and smell the flowers to have a real feel of their beauty and magnificence. 
 
It’s the thoughtful gestures like these that have made Planet Abled so popular. Now she has plans to expand their work and organise tours to Jaipur, Rishikesh and Haridwar. 
 
Presently, there may be a general lack of sensitivity towards the needs of those living with disability, there may also be a definite paucity of facilities like wheelchairs, ramps and special toilets that would make hot tourist spots disabled-friendly but thanks to Arora at least there is no dearth of opportunities for the disabled to give in to that wonderful feeling of wanderlust. - Women's Feature Service
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