A responsible approach to make our planet abled

Responsibly Yours: Guest Column

A Lajwanti Naidu

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 15% of the world’s population- approximately one billion people are estimated to live with some form of disability. UNWTO is convinced that accessibility for all to tourist facilities, products and services should be a central part of any responsible and sustainable tourist policy.

The UNWTO recommendations on ‘Accessible Tourism for All’ are meant to be used as a general, basic mainstreaming framework for ensuring that people with disabilities have access to the physical environment, the transportation system, information and communications channels, as well as to a wide range of public facilities and services. The recommendations incorporate the most relevant aspects of the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities of 2006 and the principles of Universal Design.

The International Year of Sustainable Tourism 2017 aims to support a change in policies, business practices and consumer behaviour towards a more sustainable tourism sector that can contribute effectively to the Sustainable Development Goals. According to UNWTO Secretary-General, Taleb Rifai, “This is a unique opportunity to build a more responsible and committed tourism sector that can capitalise its immense potential in terms of economic prosperity, social inclusion, peace and understanding, cultural and environmental preservation.”

Sustainable Development Goal 4 strongly supports the reduction of persistent disparities among citizens be it in Education or Disability. Worldwide, in 2016, two thirds of the 957 million adults aged 15 and over who were unable to read and write were women. Children below age group of 6-13 years of age do not have an access to formal schooling and elementary education. Now if this is the scenario of normal population, what about that section of society which are suffering from some form of disability? These questions chanced upon me to contemplate on the Vocational Skills to be imparted to people suffering from certain disability.

Can Accessible Tourism be a part of Responsible Tourism? How can this planet be made abled from disabled? With several of these considerations and contemplations, my encounter with National Association of Blind along with Open Eyes made me understand the importance of education in Accessible Tourism.

Sensory organs play a pivotal role and of all of them eyes is probably the most important symbolic sensory organ. They can represent clairvoyance, omniscience and or a gateway into the soul. Other qualities that eyes are commonly associated with are: intelligence, light, vigilance, moral conscience, and truth. Not every soul is Hellen Keller nor our Tourism Policy is designed to make to visually challenged centric to access all destinations.

My interaction with Neha and Lakshmi at National Association of Blind gave me different perception to life. Both are trained therapist from University of Tokyo, Japan were clueless how to empower themselves economically with their inherent talent and skill. Open Eyes, a social Enterprise proposed a training session to bring these therapists to main stream tourism with certain skill development programme.

To integrate them into main stream tourism a workshop has been conducted to train 29 visually challenged students. That was the day I realised not them but I am visually impaired who could not perceive the importance of vision. Keeping in view of the above, I would like to discuss two organisations as case studies which are contributing to the concept of Accessible Tourism.

Le Travel World of Sanjay Dang has created sensation who contributed more than 80 crores to the travel industry. His vision is to envisage a new chapter in tourism and travel. Dang’s vision impairment has never slowed him down. His degenerative vision disorder started when he was just two years old. He was diagnosed with congenital myopia and had completely lost his vision by the age of 25. Always positive in outlook, Dang took this as a challenge. He started listening to international radio broadcasts to learn about developments the world over. He attended the Army Public School in New Delhi and then went on to study at the Kendra Vidyalaya in Bareilly and Dehradun. Cultural and extracurricular activities became an intrinsic part of his life. Dang won awards in dramatics and also contributed to the school magazine. Travel and tourism fascinated him and began to dominate his inner world. His desire to learn more about the culture of India and other countries grew. This prompted Dang to work with the General Sales Agent of Pan Am for a couple of years where he learnt the intricacies of the travel trade.

Le Travel World was the path he chose when he decided to do it alone. The appreciation and accolades that followed made it all the more rewarding for him. He has received major awards from international airlines. Dang is quick to attribute this success to his family’s support, the focused outlook of his team and to some out-of-the-box thinking on his part. He has also evolved skills that he explains, are normal for a person with vision impairment but come as a real surprise to others.

Dang elaborates, “It is a fact that you will have enhanced memory retention and recall, as other faculties become stronger when your visual functions are not normal. A lot of friends and colleagues tend to ask me for information, such as phone numbers and addresses, which I am able to recall instantly. In general, one tends to have a better voice recognition capability than most others.”

Voice recorders and other gadgets have helped him along the way. Dang relies on technology and is well-versed with the latest developments that serve as aids to the visually impaired. “It is prudent to keep checking at frequent intervals,” he advises, “if these products have come out with newer improved versions as technology is ever changing.” For someone who is busy at work organising trips for others, Dang is quick to confess that he is himself not much of a traveller. Given a chance, though, it is India where he would travel and more specifically, to two totally different destinations, Rajasthan and Kerala. Sanjay Dang is characteristically full of plans and projects for the growth of his business. On the agenda is an online portal that will help increase his agency’s market share. And the waves of World Space Radio fill his moments of leisure, bringing rhythm to a life of enterprise and endeavour; a life that has translated into moments of reaching out to people all over the world.

Neha Arora of Planet Abled has brought a paradigm shift in the lives of people who are disabled and challenged. The very idea behind this initiative is that travel is not a privilege, it’s a basic human right, says Neha. The differently-abled don’t want sympathy but need empathy – they just want to be treated like normal people. “As a society we lack both sensitivity and awareness. If people with disabilities are seen around more, it may create awareness in society. Instead of staying inside, they should come out in the open and be seen in malls, stadiums, etc and travel like everyone else. Once, twice, maybe thrice people will pass comments or give those strange looks; but eventually seeing the disabled everywhere would become a normal sight. In this way, over time, acceptance and sensitivity would develop among the regular population,” Neha adds.

As the adage goes Loka Samastha Sukhino Bhavantu, thus the above cases gives us an ‘insight to sight’ and ‘mission to vision’ to make the world accessible, sustainable and responsible planet to live and let live.