Dr. Akashdeep Arora, 40, a government sector banking executive reminisces his first jungle safari at Jim Corbett national park, “the atmosphere of the jungle, the early morning breeze that touches you, the fragrance of the earth, the sounds of the birds, it really defined being in the moment for me.” Meenakshi Chaturvedi, 24, a store assistant by profession experienced the thrill of a first camel ride early this year. Why these seemingly universal experiences are so important here is because Akash and Meenakshi are visually impaired.
In Akash’s words, “travel is one way of evolution.” He narrates the challenges and triumphs of being a visually impaired traveller (VIT), “The resources for mobility of VI persons in India are limited. I am always dependent on family members or experts if I have to step out of my city. All these years I travelled only for necessary tasks like family weddings or professional meetings. When I took my first trip for leisure, without family, in a group setting, I realised how liberating travel could be. I met a variety of people with different competencies and got to know each of their unique journeys, I realised there is so much to learn.” What VI need when they travel is a fine balance of independence but in a protected environment. It is important for them to feel safe yet free enough to explore.
Visually impaired people pick a lot more through their other senses. Amit Jain, founder of a tours and travel company based in Delhi organises trips at greatly reduced prices for VI people as a part of CSR initiative. They have volunteers for assisting the VITs. He also travels with them and says, “it is quite fascinating to watch these special souls experiencing the thrilling scenarios as they come into contact with nature, architecture, sculptures, artefacts and even the little things like feeling the vehicles they are travelling through and as well as inhaling the refreshing surroundings in order to connect their exceptional senses for the thorough adventure. While going for the elephant ride, they were guided to feel the elephant first to know how much of an exotic creature it is that they are going to ride.” He adds, “They like to take their time by roaming their hands around each and every curve, cervix and inch of the special architecture, sculptures, monuments and walls to gain an intimate connection
with the place along with sitting & taking a moment to gather everything by intently listening to the surrounding, taking a breath of fresh & different air to feel the excitement.” Conducting these trips was not easy. “Initially I went and met VI people at many clubs and associations and convinced them with great difficulty to travel. I think it is important for them to travel once their basic needs are met. Once the word of mouth has spread, we have many queries for the same.”
When Ravindar Gupta, 38, computer trainer for blind, went to Hong Kong with his wife, he was stopped by the airport authorities since he was 98 % blind and interrogated how he will manage. “I got late blindness. My parents had to stop my education as that added extra pressure on my eyes. It was a task to explain to airport authorities in HK that I had family and I would be taken care of.” Shares Ravinder. Hence when he went with Amit Jain’s group to Bangkok next, all such arrangements were taken care of. Other than a feeling of belonging to a community, the benefits of aided group travel are smooth arrangements and assistance. “Because I have some visual memory from when I could see, when my travel companions describe a cruise liner or a Buddha statue I can make sense of it. Those who are birth blind cannot visualise colors or shapes.” He adds. Meenakshi lives by herself and feels that traveling in a group has helped increase her confidence. “I am usually a little hesitant, don’t talk much and not very fond o
f dancing, but it is during my travels that I have experienced the joys of unembarrassed dancing.” She chips in. Meenakshi has travled to Pangot, Rishikesh, Jaipur and Goa this year.
Pankaj Lakhera, 48, is partially blind university professor. “It is one thing to sit in a car and move around. But when we are taken for nature walks with expert assistance and made to feel leaves, stones, mud...the joy increases manyfolds.”
Life is not exactly kind to anyone with a disability but it’s heart-warming to see the fortitude to carry on in them. Amit’s real intention behind VIT is inclusion, it is to welcome visually impaired to mainstream tourism.