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16-31 August 2008  
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Home - Management - Article

Cover Story

It's a long walk

The unpaved path always seems longer and harder. So appear the roads of India for the differently-abled traveller, or simply tourists with ‘special needs’. While many international destinations are friendly towards these travellers, India it seems has a long way to trudge before it can become more sensitive. By Reema Sisodia

"India is till a long way to go when it comes to serving disabled travellers. Insensitivity, lack of awareness in terms of facilities required by this segment and negligence are major cause for concern." This is the voice of Neenu Kewlani, who uses a wheelchair and is an activist fighting for the rights of the disabled. This includes fighting to provide them with seamless travel facilities.

Another activist Sunita Sancheti, who is paraplegic and uses a wheelchair as well, has her own story. "My parents were travelling abroad and they wanted to take me along as well. I spoke to big tour operators in India who unfortunately could not cater to my request for designing a disabled-friendly holiday. There was lack of information on their side regarding coach facilities; they requested us to hire cars, which was exorbitant. Finally my parents travelled while I had to stay back."

Both women had a harrowing experience on one of India's private full-service carriers just a day before this story went into print. The staff was completely unprepared to handle wheelchair-bound travellers on its flight.

How does India fare?

Rajeev Kohli, director (Marketing) at Creative Travel and India Chapter president of ASTA (American Society of Travel Agents), which recently organised seminars on accessible travel across India, had something to share as well. "When we travelled with the speakers on the domestic flights, we saw the attitude that the ground staff had while handling guests on wheelchairs. There was no reason for that; it’s just an in-bred reaction to immediately say no. These are also one of the barriers we need to break down. It's easy to build ramps but what is more important is to train the staff that provides the services," he said. The ministry too needs to be proactive on this by making destinations and tourist spots friendlier to the disabled.

Tourists with 'special needs' not only includes people on wheelchairs but also those who need special medical attention. Whether India is ready to cater to them is a serious question with no happy answers. Few hotels, airports and airlines are capable of providing facilities for the disabled travellers. Isolated attempts at building facilities that are few and far between with no proper planning are insufficient. Elaborates Prem Subramaniam of IDFC, "I'm afraid India is very poorly prepared to address the requirements of these special travellers unless they are a part of an organised tour. Firstly, there is a total lack of sensitivity. Second, there is very poor training and this is true even for airlines. Wherever there is an attempt to offer special facilities, the effort stops at offering ramp access in a very limited way as though maneuvering a wheelchair is all that is required. Outside this the facilities for normal tourists itself leaves a lot to be desired, let alone those with special needs."

According to Shubhada Joshi, MD of Girikand Travels, most hotel properties barring a few have these facilities out of compulsion and not because of genuine concern. "Perhaps we need to push things through so that there is at least some awareness," she says. Our destinations and tourist spots can definitely learn from global efforts to facilitate travel for the disabled. Sharing her experience is Veneeta Rawat of AK Tours & Travels - "In many international destinations where I have travelled, there are provisions for the disabled. On one of my recent trips to Austria, the hotel I stayed at in Salzburg, had a small bathroom, but it had an extra railing so those guests on wheelchair can use it to lift themselves to the toilet seat. Most public places have separate bathrooms for the disabled."

Like Madame Tussauds and the London Palace for instance that have separate entry for the disabled. Subramaniam informs that it is mandatory in Britain to provide appropriate facilities, failing which there are denial of grants, subsidies, funding and inclusion in primary literature. "In most countries the effort starts with better design to address the needs of this segment by defining the challenges and creating facilities so that they are able to do this without having to draw attention to themselves or their needs. Government funding is not offered unless this has been addressed satisfactorily. Tourist information includes details of facilities and limitations at attractions. For instance, how can those who have hearing problems, vision or speech impairment or are unable to walk normally still enjoy a destination?" he questions.

How India can become disabled friendly
  • Step-free areas (where wheelchairs can ply)
  • Separate counters for disabled travellers
  • Wash areas and toilets specific to their needs
  • Airlines and airport authority need to have ambu-lifts and aisle chairs and other requirements
  • The hotel and restaurant segment should also design facilities for this segment
  • Disabled-friendly transport like buses, trains, elevators for underground trains, etc
  • Escalators in shopping areas
  • Theatres and entertainment centres need to keep the need of the disabled tourist in mind
  • Designated parking facilities
  • Access to monuments need to be disabled tourist friendly
  • Attitudinal change
  • Trained manpower: a well-defined training programme for staff and officials related to tourism
  • Soft skills training: How to speak with someone with a disability, how to handle a wheelchair, how to transfer a guest with mobility issues, etc.

There is hope though…

Of course, one will find operators who have systems and packages in place to cater to this segment. Unfortunately, they are few and far between. For instance, Ibex Expeditions that has organised overland journeys for wheelchair-ridden tourists including a Himalayan trek for a polio-afflicted person.

What most tourism stakeholders have missed out on is the fact that this is one segment that has well-defined niche travellers. Catering to them would not only make them 'specialists' in the field but also take advantage of the fiscal benefits that comes with servicing them. For instance, their travel budgets are higher since they need to travel with a caretaker or family. Says Kewlani, "I would love to travel and explore the world and I would be more than glad to know of an operator that is a one-stop-shop."

What India needs if for service providers to see people with disabilities as a viable economic segment and not as one that calls forth their charity. Kohli for one believes this to be a segment where one can make money by providing quality travel services. "I don't mean to trivialise this issue or ask the industry to take advantage of disabled travellers, but basic laws of economics dictate that a smart entrepreneur will see opportunity in a challenge. Quality service can afford to ask for a good price," he says.

Though Sancheti had to give up her international trip, she was all praises for Heena Tours & Travels that organised her Kerala and Kanyakumari trip. "The Swami Vivekanand memorial is probably one of the most tourist friendly destinations in India. Even the tour operator we were travelling with made the trip happen for me and I had tears in my eyes as it was an extremely fulfilling experience. Another operator - Time Tours & Travels - helped me with my trip to J&K," she says.

Bringing about radical changes may be intimidating for India given its position in this area at this point of time. But it can hope to reach a respectable level of sympathy and infrastructural sophistication only with singular efforts towards this direction. Trained and sensitive manpower is probably the first step.


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