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Incredible, but not inclusive India
Physically challenged tourists have no option but fly to their destinations and stay at expensive resorts. Trains and small hotels simply do not bother with making facilities accessible.
When Anjlee Agarwal and her friends decided to travel from Delhi to Shimla and Manali in the late 1990s, their aim wasn't just to explore the country. They wanted to prove that they could travel independently. Instead, the small group of people, all of whom had from various physical disabilities, found that small things like using the washroom on a six-hour road trip or accessing hotel rooms became big obstacles.
The experience motivated Agarwal, now 42, to co-found Samarthyam, National Centre for Accessible Environments, to promote accessibility awareness and work with planning bodies to make tourism and transportation accessible to all. Samarthyam has since advised the architects of Dilli Haat so that the complex could be made accessible for the disabled. Samarthyam also played an advisory role in the planning process of the Delhi Metro.
Long-distance travel, however, still remains a problem. Indian Railways provides concessions for disabled travellers, and there is a "Handicapped Coach" in every train. But this actually means very little. In a blog entry describing her journey on the Karnataka Express in February this year, Shivani Gupta, 42, a wheelchair-bound traveller describes how inaccessible the bathrooms were, how dangerous it was to attempt getting on or off the train, and how she could barely leave her berth during the two-day journey. "There is no way I can make a train journey ever again, " she concludes.
Others agree that travellers with disabilities are better off flying to their destinations though that too is fraught with problems. Mithu Alur, the founder of the Spastics Society of India (now known as ADAPT), points out that her daughter Malini who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy in her childhood still cannot travel independently. This is despite the fact that Malini is independent enough to have secured two masters' degrees.
Gupta points out that the policy on how to facilitate travel for disabled fliers varies from one airline to another. Some like SpiceJet refuse to carry non-foldable wheelchairs.
Spurred by her experiences, Gupta founded AccessAbility, a consultancy firm that provides inputs to companies on how to extend their services to those with disabilities. ITC sought their input to make the Park Hotels accessible. Alur recounts an incident where ADAPT ensured that a mall was accessible to customers on wheelchairs. The management consequently saw a rise in revenue from new clients, she adds.
Changes are being made at the legislative level as well. The Ministry of Urban Development's Action Plan for barrier free built environment provides detailed guidelines for making public spaces accessible and supplements the Persons With Disabilities Act, 1995. The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill is pending in the Parliament. In a comparative analysis of seven states carried out by Samarthyam, Agarwal found that building bye-laws take into account only a limited set of physical disabilities, and suggests changes that need to be made to make lifts, pavements and corridors more accessible.
"As a disabled person only the more expensive services are accessible to me such as air travel instead of rail travel, using taxis instead of public transport, five star hotels instead of cheaper guest houses, " Gupta said. "It is as though I am being charged a tax for being disabled. "
Despite some changes, independent travel for the disabled remains a luxury.
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