World at their feet

Sai Kaustuv Dasgupta in Goa Sai Kaustuv Dasgupta in Goa

The first time Somya Dawar travelled solo, it was a month-long work trip to the US. Ever since her accident in 2003 left her immobile waist down, she had never travelled without her family. When she arrived at the hotel, Dawar realised that the room was not suited to her needs. The door to the washroom wasn’t wide enough for her wheelchair.

A consultant with an IT company, Dawar, 32, is preparing to travel alone once more. A Delhi resident, she is going to Goa with Umoja, a travel company that caters to the specially-abled. “It’s fun to vacation with my family but travelling by myself has its own charm,” says Dawar. Wanderlust is an urge that goes unacknowledged in the specially-abled. Umoja, launched in November 2014, by Yeshwant Holkar, attempts to address that. “For the differently-abled, even the smallest details such as the width of a door, can ruin a holiday or a work trip. There is no database that will provide information on whether restaurants, public spaces, hotels or tourist spots in a certain destination are equipped for the people with varying disabilities,” says Holkar.

Holkar’s initial research unearthed shocking cases, such as of a wheelchair-bound bodybuilder, Nikhil Gupta. An employee at an IT company, he completely changes his diet during travel — switching to liquids — in order to minimise the use of a washroom. “We also saw that, while many specially-abled people travel with families, they have to be left behind at the hotel when the others go sightseeing,” says Holkar.

When Umoja brings a hotel, public space, restaurant or a tourist spot on board, they provide them with a form that has more than 200 questions regarding the logistics. “When a user shares their details, our search engine runs a match across properties to suggest the best options based on their needs,” he says. Many organisations willingly make changes to cater to the disabled. “There are one billion differently-abled people in the world. The industry is able to see the potential,” he adds. Umoja is working with over 100 partners across 11 destinations in India and abroad.

They have introduced a special guide to Goa, a destination where they have helped set up a wheelchair-friendly taxi service. “We conducted a Wheelchair Wanderlust competition and the winner, a 26-year-old Sai Kaustuv Dasgupta from Andhra Pradesh, who suffers from Brittle Bone Disease, got a fully-paid trip to Goa,” says Holkar.

The visit, which Dasgupta, a graphic artist, remembers as the most moving experience “as I left home for the first time after eight years”, fell short on only one measure. “The beaches were inaccessible because the wheelchairs don’t move easily on sand. And the government doesn’t allow construction of ramps near beaches under CRZ rules,” says Holkar. To prove to the government how this can be done, Umoja has organised a beach carnival currently on, with temporary ramps that will allow the wheelchair users to get close to the sea. It is this carnival that Dawar hopes to participate in as her next solo travel.

“I’ve been to Goa before; it was a road trip and I had loved the sun, sand and the beaches. That was before the accident. It’s the first time since 2003 that I will be travelling solo within the country. At the carnival, we will have access to a wheelchair that floats in the water and other fun activities such as paragliding,” she says.

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