CHENNAI: Growing up, Malathi Raja’s world was confined to the four walls of her hostel. Being left behind, unable to step out and mingle with mainstream society had left her disheartened. But all that changed, thanks to the wheelchair she received in her 30s, one that allowed her to step into the world of sports.
“When I started playing sports like basketball, I started noticing the change in me. I could finally do things I wished to do! I could even represent India internationally,” Malathi exclaims. Her lived experiences spurred her to think about similar desires expressed by those on her basketball team. “My friends tell me, ‘We want to go to the temple but we need to ask so many strangers to help us up the stairs.’ Yengala help panradhukku yaarukkume porumai illai (Nobody has the patience to help us),” she says.
A quest to find solutions for people with mobility and physical challenges to experience wanderlust led to the launch of her travel start-up, Yathumagi Travels, in 2021. “Yathumagi transliterates to ‘a person who can be anything’ — that is our dream. We can be anything we want to, we will go anywhere we wish to, we will see the world on our wheelchairs,” she declares.
Barriers no longer
The most crucial step of designing a tour package for people is identifying all potential barriers.
“During my recce of places for accommodation and tourist spots in each city, I pinpoint accessibility concerns. How will people move from the vehicle to the room, from their rooms to the dining areas, from the vehicle to the temple steps? Many hotel owners feel that there is no utility in spending money to build a ramp for wheelchaired people. They ask me, ‘You visit only once or twice a year, so why should we spend so much?’” she shares, adding that having accessible infrastructure such as ramps and elevators will attract more customers.
The start-up also provides a means of living for those with physical impairments. “From calls with customers to collecting payments to communication with hotels, I outsource daily tasks to them. Some of the wheelchaired women otherwise earn a living through making and selling small handicraft items. For us, full-time work is nearly impossible to find on account of offices lacking lifts and accessible toilets. That’s why I offer such jobs here to differently-abled people and women,” she shares.
A helping hand
Good Samaritans are around every corner, and for a company specialising in travel and mobility for those with mobility challenges, it is vehicle drivers. They approach Malathi with their services for outstation trips and are quick on their feet in case of emergencies. Describing a trip to Valparai where one traveller had sustained an injury, Malathi says that it was the driver who guaranteed them a comfortable trip around the hill station. “The drivers we appoint for trips do not only take us to the hotels or railway stations. They also lift our wheelchairs, get us food on the journey, and tend to us with kindness,” she highlights, adding that they make sure to check if hotels and staff are trained in taking care of customers with disabilities.
Arranging for disabled-friendly trips can be a costly affair, but Yathumagi Travels’ tour packages are easy on pockets. And businesses are happy to be part of this endeavour, it seems.
“Hotels we coordinate with while designing packages provide my agency with special rates,” adds Malathi. In fact, she also provides customers with wheelchairs, if required, for free.
Gearing up to celebrate their first anniversary, Malathi has another reason to rejoice. Their YouTube channel has caught the attention of Tamil Nadu Tourism officials who have requested inputs from them to improve accessibility in tourist locations. They even inform the agency of lesser-known accessible places of accommodation.
Malathi now wants to kick start awareness of accessibility needs to newer locales and cities.
“I recently explored hotels and public places in Rameshwaram and Madurai on my wheelchair. I wrote down my complaints and requirements and shared with the officials, temple authorities and hotel management who were not aware that accessibility needs existed. They were attentive and promised to install accessible infrastructure. This gives me hope to keep at my work, no matter what obstacles come my way. I feel like I have truly achieved something for our cause,” she signs off.
For details, call: 9840682726, 8925465958, 8870417805 or visit www.yathumagitravels.co.in