Travelling can be segregated in various ways. There are those who travel for a purpose, while some travel for fun, and a few others embark on a journey to see and know the world and people closely. But let’s not forget about those people who want to travel but are unable to enjoy it because they are differently-abled. Once upon a time simply stepping out of their homes was an adventure for people with disabilities. But today, they have gone beyond the four walls and are learning to fight against all odds to explore the whole wide world in front of them. They are bravely getting on three-wheelers or making minor alterations to their mode of transport to overcome their limitations. When more such people started travelling, they also realized that Kerala’s infrastructure wasn’t friendly towards the differently-abled. Wheelchairs weren’t allowed on any of the roads in the state.
Following the incessant demands, the government made additions to the law for new buildings. The differently-abled should be able to travel wherever a new building is being constructed. Wheelchairs are provided for those who have difficulty walking, and for entrances, ramps should be provided. A lot of reforms were implemented. But the ones who have experienced the newer reforms maintain that the arrangements are still in their nascent stage. They are sharing their experiences and difficulties while travelling. Is Kerala still friendly towards the differently-abled? Is everything that is being made with the intention of making things easier for the differently-abled people scientific? With an unwavering determination to face any problem, they assert one thing – ‘We are not asking for charity, but for our rights!”
Rajeev, treasurer of the Thanal Paraplegic Patients Welfare Society, is someone who loves to travel. Travelling is part of the organization’s agenda to reach out to a large number of differently-abled people who are stuck at home. Rajeev shares a travel experience.
"I went to Alappuzha beach the other day with a desire to step into the ocean. I had heard that they had spent a lot of money on building ramps to the beach. I thought it was important to enjoy such facilities that are done to us. But I discovered that the ramp was only there for a short distance. Even from there, we can’t witness the ocean. If we had to enjoy the beauty of the sea, we had to see it from the shore. With the help of a few people, we managed to reach the shore through the sand and witnessed the ocean. It is not easy to push the wheelchair through the sand. The tires simply won’t turn.
Another time I went to a premium hotel, where I got in a wheelchair and went to the ramp and realises that someone had placed a motorbike. I called the security and explained. The security and the manager came directly and arranged all the necessary facilities and apologized. We were told that since no one comes there in a wheelchair they decided to park the motorbikes.
Has anyone wondered why people in wheelchairs are reluctant to come out of their homes? Simply because they aren’t sure whether the spaces are friendly for them outside. And since very few differently-abled step out, the govt is conveniently overlooking such basic facilities. In reality, they are only ignoring us!
Unni Max is a singer on Thanal Freedom on Wheels and has the experience of performing in various districts in Kerala. He has performed in temples, weddings, and other important venues. When asked how he got on stage, he said everyone would simply pick him up and place him on stage. And no, it’s not just about him, seven of the singers who come there to perform required similar help to reach the stage. At certain places, they have constructed a ramp for those rare occasions when there are singers who come there in a wheelchair. Unni is also a traveller!
“I have been on a lot of trips to Kerala and other Indian states. But I encountered maximum difficulties while travelling in Kerala. My last destination was Thekkady. During our hotel stay, we all decided to make a trip to the Periyar Tiger Reserve Forest Lake. I even decided against joining them as I had heard that the road wasn't friendly for someone like me.
When we went there and enquired we found that a ramp had been built along the way. Anyway, someone will have to carry me to the boat, so I decided to make the trip. The next hurdle was that from the ticket counter, you will have to travel on their bus to the location. It is not easy to get on a bus in a wheelchair. I was already disheartened when I saw the narrow doors of the bus. Eventually, my cousin talked to them, and they allowed the two of us to travel in a car.
But at each checkpoint, we were told that they were more likely to stop us at the next check post. Perhaps they had noticed the determination on our faces that forced them to allow us inside. Once there, we realised that there is only a steep slope to get to the side of the boat. Whoever said there was a ramp! Finally, we had to get help. Before the guards could instruct, we were carried to the boat. People do help when they see us, but we do not need such help. Don't we have the right to travel independently, without anyone’s support or obligation?
It's not that there's no ramp or no law, the problem is in implementing them without taking the consideration of our wants. There will never be a differently-abled person in such committees, then how do these people know what are the kind of facilities required for the smooth transit of differently-abled people? Many ramps and facilities are built only because the law demands them. Most of them are worthless.
It was heartening to see the kind of facilities that were there for differently-abled in some of the countries I visited. There were government buses that had drivers getting down from their seats to assist you and special ramps that were built for a few steps. These are facilities that can be done in our state too. But there should be people who will listen to us and understand exactly what we want. Having laws just won’t suffice, it is equally crucial to provide facilities that truly benefit the differently-abled.
Preetha Thonnalackal makes handmade pens and jewellery for a living. And that also means she needs to travel extensively. Even during these travels, it was never easy to have fun. But she makes sure to make these trips memorable (though not in a pleasant way). Preetha about some of these trips and the difficulties she has faced.
“My last trip was to Ponmudi-Meenmutti. And it was a tourist destination I was dying to see. When I went there three years ago, it was hardly disabled-friendly. But a friend who had recently visited the place said nothing has changed since then. Anyway, I don’t need to make a trip to Ponmudi to explain how difficult travelling is for people like us. Recently, we had gone to a hospital for an eye checkup. There were a few steps in front of the hospital and the consultation was on the first floor and they had no lift. It was the guy in the car and the security who finally carried me to the hospital and the consultation room as well.
When I asked the doctor, he replied that no one with disabilities had been there yet. So a differently-abled person is expected to sit at home if he/she has an eye infection? Most places, even the Akshaya Centers, which meet our basic needs, are located upstairs. So what should a differently-abled person do till the door-to-door services which were discontinued following Covid are back in action? Not only this, but even in many government institutions the ramps are not safe to climb on their own and many are steep. Even with help, it is not safe to climb these ramps. Many construct such facilities only for the sake of the law. They will also be demolished once the building is completed. We also have to travel and do a lot of errands, independently, without anyone's help. Such a thing has happened only rarely in my case. We have been denied the freedom to move freely, which is any human being's greatest happiness. If the facilities provided were a little more intelligent and empathetic, it would benefit us, or it would take years for the differently-abled to lead empowered lives.
'We have to travel too' - Badarusman from Malappuram
Badarusman from Malappuram travels a lot. He is also involved in many charitable activities. Badarusman who is in a wheelchair does not like to be at home and has been involved in a number of events and trips.
'When I went to Vagamon I had a disturbing experience. They had a new adventure park and according to law, all such places must be wheelchair accessible. Except for tiled surfaces, it wasn’t possible to reach the nearby huts on a wheelchair. And you have to climb a few steps to see the viewpoint. I was curious to see the beautiful view from there.
Since there were friends, all of them carried me and started climbing up. But then someone who claimed to be in charge came and informed us that wheelchair was not allowed there. Though they couldn’t give a clear answer, they said it had more to do with hygiene issues than safety. When we wondered if it was possible to carry the person there without a wheelchair and later carry the wheelchair on its own, we got the same reply.
When we asked them to write it down on paper, they refused to do it. If there is such a law, they could have easily written it on paper. These are simply stubborn rules without proper reasons. I have had a similar experience at the Thiruvananthapuram Zoo. When I asked them to open the front gate, they refused. How many of these sights are denied to us just because we are in a wheelchair!
Soumya Joy has been in a wheelchair for years. Reading and music are her heart and soul. Though she hardly travelled, she would make small trips only for basic necessities. Her travels are for subsistence. Soumya sings at many concerts. And also does bottle art and craft. She also runs a DTP and Photostat shop.
Soumya Joy about her daily struggles…
"One of my most painful memories has to be a visit to the medical college to get a medical board certificate. This was my first visit, and the doctor's rooms were upstairs. There were so many people like me who were waiting on the ground floor to get their disability certificates as we were unable to climb the steps. But they were only giving certificates to those people who were carried on the first floor to their rooms. I waited there for a long time. They weren’t ready to come down. Finally, they were forced to come down after a few of us made a lot of commotion.
I will never forget that experience. Likewise, it was difficult to go to the church as there was no ramp. Finally, they considered it for their next reconstruction and put up a ramp. There I was the only one in a wheelchair, and yet the ramp was set up for me. Such considerations are done by a lot of people in fact. It is also difficult to shop for clothes.
At one place, there was a lift from the car park, but you have to climb three steps to get on the lift. Such unscientific lifts and ramps have been erected in many places. So many people who use wheelchairs are coming out of homes and we have every right to access all the public spaces. No one is doing us a favour by making such spaces wheelchair friendly. Changes are taking place, and everyone must be prepared to accept them. We have every right to see the world as the rest of the population.