This is my 20th blog post, so I decided to write about something very special and close to my heart.
One of my greatest fears is what will happen to a travel addict like me if one fine day I wake up and find that I am unable to move? What if I am suddenly confronted with a physical disability that forces me to stay within the confines of my home? What if the sense of liberation I derive by walking through a crowded bazaar or just taking a local bus to a new town in a new country becomes the biggest nightmare for me? I can already feel the claustrophobia setting in and a sense of panic and helplessness creeping in at the very thought of it.
Perhaps it was destiny or the insecurity in me seeking consolation, but I was indeed lucky to cross paths with some fabulous travel enthusiasts who are bound to…. or wait a second, liberated by wheelchairs. Since 2008 I have taken women travelling all over the world from the highest motorable roads of the world in Ladakh to the ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia and walking under water in Bali. But it has always troubled me that I have not been able to help a single person with restricted mobility explore the beautiful world around them. Inaccessibility of roads and hotels and also the apprehension of taking up the responsibility of people who are not footloose in the traditional sense of the term were obvious deterrents.
But my new found friends have shown me that being challenged is all in the mind. Neenu Kewlani, Sunita Sancheti, Arvind Prabhoo and Nishant Khade set new benchmarks in the world of travel by travelling the length and breadth of the country in less than 3 months, seated on wheelchairs and driving in wheelchair accessible vehicles (Check http://www.access4all.co.in/ ).Their mission was to spread the word of accessibile tourism around the country. From the remote reaches of the North East, to the stunning Pangong Lake and down south to Kerala, there was no part of the country they left untouched. Check out details of their fascinating trip ‘Beyond Barriers – The Incredible India Tour’ at : http://www.bbiit.com/index.html
Along with these travel enthusiasts I recently conducted a fun event in Mumbai on Sep 23, 2013 called ‘Ramp Walk in Mumbai’ as part of the International Social Media Week http://socialmediaweek.org/ that debuted in Mumbai for the first time http://socialmediaweek.org/mumbai/. Cooler than the Ramp Walk that showcases the latest in fashion, this walk was to highlight the importance of Ramps to make monuments and buildings accessible for everyone. I have always been fascinated by how my friends who were on wheelchairs would always refer to their movement from one place to another as ‘Walking’ and not ‘driving’ or ‘steering’ etc. Hence, I decided to name the event, ‘Ramp Walk in Mumbai’.
In a city as that is always too busy tracking the fall of the Rupee to the Dollar or rushing from local train stations to office cubicles, people have very little time to appreciate finer nuances of the city or just slow down and watch the world go by. The idea was to get people to experience the city in ‘Dimension x’ … a very different dimension from the one the one they were used to living in…. a different world in the same city where everything moves slowly but definitely more meaningfully and intensely. There is a deeper and a different Mumbai waiting to be explored for those who are willing to experiment a little.
We were delighted to be joined by the fantastic and spirited Malini Chib, author of ‘One Little Finger’ where she talks about her struggles and how she overcomes them despite having Cerebral palsy and being on a wheelchair throughout her life. Malini is also spearheading the Spastic Society and the ADAPT rights group that works to make the world a more accessible place.
So, we started off at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai’s art district, Kalaghoda one rainy afternoon. There is a wheelchair accessible ramp there, so steering the wheelchairs up was not a problem. This is a photo of some of the participants at the start of the event.
Participants were split up in groups of two. Each person was to take turns at getting blindfolded, while the other person who could see described the displayed paintings to the one who was blindfolded. Once participants took off their blindfolds they could re visit the same paintings and compare what they actually saw with what they imagined.
This is a photo of Pankaja, a tour guide of Mumbai describing the paintings to blindfolded Anahita, a journalist.
Sunita doubles up as Neelu’s guide in this unique art appreciation technique.
It was a spectacular experience and some participants actually said that once they opened their blindfolds and saw the same paintings, they felt their imagination of the paintings was more beautiful than the actual painting. In fact one of the painters was himself in the gallery and also took part in the event. He was blindfolded and one of the participants described to him his own paintings. He was overwhelmed by the experience and said that the participant had seen depths and details in his own painting that he had completely missed noticing himself.
While the gallery itself was fairly accessible, the colourful and arty Cafe Samovar which is one of my favourite haunts remained totally inaccessible due its narrow passage and uneven floor levels causing Malini’s wheelchair to almost trip. Fortunately, no injuries happened and the waiters were helpful enough to get us chai in the lobby area.
The next stop was at the Chatrapati Shivaji museum next doors. On the way Malini decided to stop by for a quick horoscope break at a Palmist who had set up shop under a tree….
while a curious street artist looked on …
Once we reached the museum, we were pleased to note that there was a well marked placard at the entrance that stated the presence of facilities for wheelchair users.
It is noteworthy that the museum has installed a wheelchair lift that can lift people on wheelchairs from ground level up to the raised surface of the floor after which it is fairly easy to get around the galleries on the ground floor as well as on the higher floors using the regular lifts that are large enough for wheelchairs. Having a little gate that the wheelchair user can close like a regular lift was a suggestion that came through, to prevent the wheelchair from slipping off the surface accidentally. Hope all heritage monuments as well as malls, restaurants make similar arrangements very soon.
This is a photo of Neelu using the wheelchair lift.
Our next stop was the David Sassoon library just across the road. We were wondering how do we cross the road as the traffic was very busy in the area and the traffic lights would not provide ample time for the wheelchairs to be steered across. But Malini simplified our problem, by stating point blank ‘Just stop the traffic’. It was priceless to see Mumbai stop in its tracks even if for just a brief moment as we glided across smoothly, much like Moses crossed the Red Sea. As soon as we crossed, the sea of traffic restarted again.
Unfortunately, despite our devil may care attitude we were unable to enter the library as there was no accessible ramp leading up to the otherwise beautiful heritage monument. In fact the head librarian met us and told us that it was the first time someone on a wheelchair had even requested for an entry. She assured us that she would take up the issue of accessibility of the library, after we told her we will come by again in a few months.
Right next doors was the Westside Mall, which had the same problem of inaccessibility. The only way they could get people on wheelchairs in is by physically lifting them, which no one was comfortable with. It was interesting to notice the reaction of the public. Commoners off the road demanded that the management come out and give answers to us, without us even asking the public for help or involvement. Again another round of assurances were given to us that provisions for wheelchair users will be given soon.
In this photo taken just outside Westside, sitting left to right are Arvind, Sunita, Neelu and Nilesh – The Fab Four… while pedestrians look on curiously.
Some of us who were not on wheelchairs tried walking down the pavement wearing a blind fold and found it a rather enlightening experience, where we had to rely on our sense of hearing and also our sixth sense to get by without hiccups. Arvind suggested that next time we should stuff our ears with cotton as well as wear a blindfold and then walk down the roads to experience what the city feels like when two of your five senses are missing.
We crossed the road back again and went to ‘Bombay Blues’, a chirpy, lively and fairly accessible restaurant (minus the toilets) where we ended the day munching on Nachos and sandwiches after having cheerfully overcome many of the blues that Bombay had presented to us that day.
This event was of course a very small step I took towards spreading the message of accessibility, but an extremely overwhelming one for me personally. It was me facing my greatest fears for the first time ever. The lesson I learn was that despite physical challenges there is no road that cannot be explored and no dream that cannot be turned to reality, if you have determination peppered of course with a generous dose of adventure and wanderlust.