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This Woman Is On A Quest To Make Travel Fun And Accessible To All, We Repeat, ALL

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By Neha Arora:

Meet Rahul, an operations manager with a leading IT company. He goes regularly to office and comes back home, stays in the house all weekend, in the confines of his wheelchair, writing short stories or watching movies.

Meet Rupmani, ever smiling and living life to the fullest. With every event or talk posted on Facebook, she posts a comment, “Is there a sign language interpreter?”

Meet Bikash, a government officer who craves the wanderlust, and a little ‘me time’. But his family doesn’t let him go anywhere, and if they do, they accompany him. Because Bikash is blind.

Last but not the least, meet Anirban, a bank manager with a photogenic smile. Anirban loves to talk but sometimes people have to make a bit of an effort to understand him as he has cerebral palsy. His mom is afraid that people’s ignorance towards him might affect his self-confidence, which is why he hardly goes out.

planet abled respondents
(From L to R) Rahul, Rupmani, Bikash and Anirban

Being the daughter of a father, who is blind and a mother who uses a wheelchair, I know the limitations that exist in terms of social interactions for a person with a disability. At a public gathering, people drift into groups and for a blind person, it is difficult to detect that. For those in a wheelchair, if you are not wheeling yourself around, or if venues are inaccessible, reaching out to people of your interest is tough. Similarly for a deaf person, the biggest barrier is communication. Without sign language, you would just be tapping on everyone’s shoulder and writing things down on your phone or a piece of paper, to communicate!

That’s why I started Planet Abled, an organisation that makes travel accessible to all. We create an inclusive environment and a platform, which gives people with disabilities and without medically-certified disabilities, an equal chance to make new friends, pursue their interests and explore the world.

Through Planet Abled, Rahul’s weekends are now spent going to heritage tours, food festivals, meet-ups, and exploring Delhi, the city he has been living in, all his life. Rupmani has made new friends at our accessible tours where there is no communication barrier, as we always have the presence of a sign language interpreter at hand. She recently attended a talk on the evolution of Delhi and didn’t feel out of place at all. Bikash gifted himself a solo trip across Uttarakhand on his birthday, breaking the shackles of his regular environment and making his dream come true. And Anirban now enjoys himself during tours and at workshops, where no one judges him. He makes so many friends now and chit chats with them for hours!

Moment Of Truth

workshop
Engaging in activities and workshops.

As a child, my family and I didn’t travel much outside Agra, the city I grew up in. Local excursions were also limited. But I did have a regular middle class upbringing. Both my parents had government jobs, and their disabilities didn’t matter since we lived with it from the day we were born.

As for this being a constraint, I would say, it made me the person I am today. From an early age, I had to engage in things and accompany my parents to places a regular child won’t ever get exposed to. It’s not that they couldn’t manage without us but they gave us this real-life training deliberately so we would become independent and mentally tough.

When we grew up and took the initiative to travel as a family, each trip threw up newer surprises due to inaccessibility and various other issues. I figured that if we faced these problems, perhaps others felt the same way? The moment this struck me, each day at my fulltime job became more and more difficult. I was working at Adobe as an Account Manager, and no doubt, my cushy job paid the bills. But in the end, my life’s calling won, and in November 2015, I took the plunge and started this journey called Planet Abled.

The Wanderlust

In a country, where people with disabilities are often marginalised; inaccessibility, lack of basic amenities and people’s insensitive attitudes are just some of the barriers, they face when travelling to unknown territories. Planet Abled is keen to change this.

Working around the concept of universal design where everyone travels together without any discriminatory parameter, we want to transform people with disabilities into avid travellers and create a platform for inclusive tourism, alongside. We want to create avenues for them to visit places freely and confidently, leaving behind social inhibitions and apprehensions about their capabilities.

So, whether they want to travel solo, or with family and friends or want to be part of our experiential tours, their disability should never stop them from taking that plunge, and that is what Planet Abled aims to enable. We customise tours, so that any person is fully able to enjoy and experience new places and cultures.

What Makes Travel Accessible?

planet abled unesco
Touring heritage sites.

Accessible infrastructure is not limited to building ramps for wheelchair-users. It means braille and audio signages at all places, written directions everywhere for the deaf and mute, and most of all, making the web accessible for all. We face a lot of challenges while organising tours, and two major ones are lack of physical and technological infrastructure, and the attitudes of people.

For instance, at a UNESCO world heritage site, which claims to have accessible toilets, the toilet is there but it was locked! It took us two visits to find out who had the key. When we finally managed to get it opened, it turned out to be just another toilet with wide doors and no handle bars for commode transfer by a wheelchair user. The men could manage somehow but we literally had to lift a lady up for transfer. In many places, there are steps but no ramps. To solve this problem, we have procured a portable ramp to make the place accessible for wheelchair users to some extent.

When it comes to technology, most common websites are not accessible via a screen reader for the blind. The most popular ticketing portal in India, which we used earlier to make bookings, is not accessible. I raised my concerns with the founder, who committed to doing something about this. However, it has been six months and nothing has changed. Being from a tech background, I know that it is no rocket science. There just needs to be a willingness to change things.

With regards to attitudes, when we go out in groups to public places, people often gawk at us. It’s a very particular kind of look – like as if they have seen aliens! At times, they pass petty remarks, too. The solution to this, is to just be seen more in public spaces and travel destinations, so that ‘seeing people with disabilities’, becomes a ‘normal’ sight.

Travel Unlimited

With rising literacy and exposure to international scenarios, and NGOs and activists raising their voices to the authorities, society is gradually becoming aware of the accessibility parameters, and the issues faced by people with disabilities. Even the Accessible India Campaign launched by the government has raised hopes for an accessible India. But all of this is a very slow process.

uyty
Out and about: Chillin’ and having fun.

In the meantime, I believe we can find solutions in small ways. Over-protective and sympathetic families should let a person with disability venture out and lead as mainstream a life as possible.

I have also observed that some of our volunteers have never interacted closely with a person with a disability their whole life. But through our activities, they have started to understand the various aspects of accessibility closely and have even started forging friendships. I believe that inclusive education can bridge this gap early on, for future generations.

Saint Augustine said, “The world is a book and those who do not travel, read only one page.” Well, this is my only submission – why should some people miss out on reading the most beautiful chapters of life just because they have a disability?

If you’re a professional, entrepreneur or organisation, working towards making India more accessible, please write in and share your perspectives!

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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