In the past few years, Tony Kurian has travelled to seven cities. That may not seem like a big deal, but for the 28-year-old PhD scholar, this is significant. He has had to face prejudice and judgment for simple things on his travels, such as sitting in a bar.
“They threw me out of a bar in Kolkata. Their only reason was they didn’t want to serve alcohol to a person who was visually impaired,” Tony narrates.
Tony is not the only person to have had this experience. Tours and travelling in India is, for the most part, visually oriented. And while people like Tony may have the aspiration to travel, they are discouraged by the judgment and prejudice they have to encounter.
However, a Mumbai-based tourism company is trying to change that.
Called Bat Travels, it was started by former advertising professionals and friends Ritu Sinha and Divya Saxena in November 2017. They design tours which include both, sighted and visually impaired persons. And to make the experience inclusive, their itineraries are designed to engage senses other than sight too.
Divya and Ritu
So far, they have been on four trips including to Varanasi and Kamshet. What’s most noticeable to Ritu is how dynamics between the people on the group change during the course of the trip. “The apprehensions seem to melt away and people have left after exchanging phone numbers and connecting on social media. They keep in touch even now, asking each other to come for the next trip,” she quips.
How it began
The idea of Bat Travels came to Divya and Ritu during their Europe trip in mid-2017.
“We saw two blind men walk into a restaurant we were sitting in. That was the first time we saw someone visually impaired at a tourist spot. And we realised how we hadn’t seen any visually impaired persons doing touristy things during our entire trip,” Ritu shares.
A beer tasting session
When they came back to India, they found out after some research that even in India, most tours were geared towards sightseeing. “We decided to start something which would also cater to visually impaired persons and make the experience more sensorial than just focusing on sight,” Divya says.
In July, the duo quit their jobs, and in November they announced their company.
Divya and Ritu explain that by having a mixed group, they are able to ensure that each visually impaired person has one ‘travel pal’ with vision. This person, who has able eyes, can help them experience the trip better by guiding them and giving a verbal description when required.
“People usually have their heart in the right place but are not sure how they should conduct themselves around disabled individuals. They don’t want to say anything offensive, and don’t know how they should conduct themselves,” Ritu observes.
In order to address this, they provide able-bodied members of the travel group with a primer which has instructions like asking a visually impaired person how they would like to be guided, instead of just pulling them.
Ritu leading Tony on a trek
“We have seen that once they start talking to each other, the awkwardness does not last very long. Perhaps because they realise that these people are more than their disability and are just like us,” Divya says.
Tony agrees. “Disability is not normalised, so it is obvious that they have apprehensions. So we also try to throw in ice-breakers. And once the conversation starts flowing, you can feel a tangible shift in the atmosphere as their apprehensions melt away. Most of them are very curious about how we do day to day things, like watching Netflix,” he says.
The group enjoys Sufi music. Photo by Karthik Shriram
For Sheetal, a 40-year-old advertising professional, taking a trip with Bat Travels was a means of teaching her eight-year-old daughter about disability and inclusivity. But she ended up learning a lot too.
“My perception of disability changed. They were so tech-savvy, and I met some very interesting people who had great taste in music and films. It certainly helped me see a person beyond their disability,” she says.
Involving senses other than sight
When they took a trip to Varanasi, Divya and Ritu took a departure from the touristy stuff and took the group on a food trail where they had local delicacies like poori kachori, chana bhaja, mithai, paan, lassi and so on.
Then, they went to the Ganga aarti, where what the sounds and smells could not capture was explained by travel pals to the visually impaired members.
Finally, they went to visit the weavers’ houses, who hand-weave the famous Benarasi sarees. “We had taken prior permission from the weavers, and they allowed us to touch the different kinds of threads, the taana-baana as you call it,” Ritu recounts.
A visually impaired member of the tour group feeling the carving on a door in Benaras
What this often means for the duo is getting prior permission and getting vendors who agree to cater to disabled persons. They face some issues here – for instance, they were turned down by four paragliding vendors when they wanted to organise it in Kamshet, Maharashtra.
“We didn’t understand why, because the instructor is with participant. They did not get that they are only visually impaired and could very well be in control of their bodies,” Divya says.
Over time, Bat Travels also plans to include 3D models of the famous monuments of the place they are visiting, so that when they go there, the sight impaired can touch the model to visualize the structure.
Tony observes that in an ideal society, all travel groups would be inclusive, and something like Bat Travels would not need to exist.
“But we don’t live in an ideal society. And what Bat Travels and other initiatives like it are doing is saying that inclusive trips are indeed possible,” he says.
A group selfie on the Kamshet trip. Photo by Siddhesh Kulkarni
“There’s a perception that people with disability, including visual impairment, shouldn’t step out of their house except for work and basic needs. Travel is not associated with disability. But such trips are breaking that perception. They provide an opportunity for people to see that we too are normal people, with aspirations to travel, make friends, just like them,” Tony adds.