"When people come and tell you that because of you they had the best day of their life; it was the first time they stepped out to see something beautiful; and they had been living in the same city for 20 years but never ever visited a heritage monument; you know you are touching the right chord somewhere,” says Neha Arora, the Founder of Planet Abled, an organisation that provides accessible and inclusive travel solutions to people with disabilities.
Born to parents with disabilities, she faced challenges in travelling that made her realise there was a vacuum for people with disabilities to indulge in travel and leisure activities. She got inspired and started a venture to fill this gap.
“Planet Abled was incepted in 2016 to give people with disabilities an avenue to visit places freely and confidently,” says Neha, who successfully conducted a 17-day tour spreading across two countries, five states and 13 cities in July. “This tour was a first ever in the world that saw a mix of people with all disabilities travelling together,” she says.
The 33-year-old says, “My father is blind and mother is a wheelchair user, but we all are fond of travelling. We would face a lot of issues in terms of accessibility and the kind of leisure activities available when we travelled. This made me think that others might also be facing the same problems.”
So, Neha began research to create the right platform. But it was a huge task with no set models. Her parents were also skeptical on how would she manage and make so many people travel. But she did her homework for nearly two years before finally taking the plunge in November 2015, and left her job at Adobe.
The first challenge was to convince people that they could travel like others. “While I was doing my customer validation work, I realised everyone wanted to go out and they were doubtful if it was really possible. When the first tour was organised in 2016, they came in with apprehensions. A 40-year-old person from Bengaluru who then worked with an IT company in Delhi said he never thought he could experience such a day in his life ever,” she says.
It is not easy to think of a tour that can be enjoyed by all in the group. Neha says, “I have tour groups comprising people with different disabilities, so my concern is to chalk out the tour in such a way that everyone enjoys.
"Since there was no existing model, finding the right people as moderators and guides who would like to take that extra mile and get trained by the group before being part of this tour was another challenge for her.
“At many places there are steps, and no ramps. To solve this problem, we procured a portable ramp to make the place accessible for wheelchair users,” she says.
Funds were another issue, which she managed from her savings and loan from friends and family. “Also, the revenues from the tours help with our operational expenses. We are still bootstrapped with no external funding,” she says. But her ultimate happiness is when she sees the change happening.
On September 27, she is organising an Inclusive Travel Meet to mark World Tourism Day. It aims to highlight the stories of travellers with disabilities and to initiate a discussion on accessible tourism.