Early in June 2018, a group of travellers got together to explore Sikkim. Their itinerary for the holiday included monastery visits, trekking, zip lining, tea tasting, forest trails, and climbs at the Nathula Pass. Pretty regular for any trip to the state, except that the group wasn’t regular – one-third of them could not see.
Travelling with the visually impaired community is not something that we usually think about. While diversity and inclusion maybe big words in the corporate and public sectors, travel industry is still blind to the needs of the community. With no infrastructure to support, and just a handful of Braille enabled spaces, it is certainly challenging, if not impossible, for the people with the disability to travel alone. Most blind people therefore are either stuck at home or remain dependent on their family for travel.
“India has a substantial population of visually impaired people, who are independent, earning well and would be open to travelling alone if they are assured of safety,” says Divya Saxena, co founder of BAT Travels, a one of its kind travel company catering to the visually impaired in India. “The challenge is to reach them and help them experience travel in an engaging manner,” she adds. Divya happens to be one half of the duo that set up BAT Travels in November last year after a moment of epiphany in Rome. “We were on a holiday in Rome when we spotted two blind men at a tourist spot. We asked ourselves why don’t we see more unsighted people travelling. That’s what sparked the idea for BAT Travels.” Ritu Sinha, the other half of BAT Travels explains.
From idea to implementation, it took the award winning advertising professionals a lot of perseverance and convincing to make the switch. Not only did they have to give up their stable, well paying jobs and tread an unknown path, but they also had to persuade the families of the people who wanted to travel with them. “We had to personally speak with the families of some of our blind guests”, recounts Divya, “they needed a lot of reassurance. We were of course happy to provide that. Trust takes time to build.” She adds matter of factly. The result—their first trip took off in less than 6 months after returning from their Roman holiday.
Since the primary premise of BAT Travels was to make travel available to the blind, the experiences had to go beyond sight seeing. It began with simple outings like Beer Tasting and Sufi Nights in the vicinity of Mumbai, where BAT Travels is based, and has slowly yet steadily moved to outstation experiences that range from Paragliding, Camping, and River Rafting, to Jungle Safaris and Culinary Trails. Every experience has one thing in common – all of them go beyond sight, and indulge all other senses too.
“Our experiences are designed for the senses”, says Ritu, “and we do not restrict ourselves to the VI community. In fact, we always have small yet mixed groups of unsighted and sighted people,” she adds. The sighted help the unsighted with descriptions, movement, and generally act as their travel pals. The unsighted meanwhile point out things that sighted sometimes miss out on. Having mixed groups also ensure normalcy and does not leave the group to an indifferent tour operator.
The itineraries at BAT Travel are created carefully to suit the needs of the visually impaired guests and everyone dealing with them is sensitized before hand. It is however not as simple as it may sound. Some people are awkward or uncomfortable initially. Most of them do not regularly socialize or even meet people with disabilities and are unsure of how to conduct themselves without patronizing or offending the other person. “We believe that everyone wants to help, but people are often not sure how to,” says Ritu. “To address this we share some guidelines with the sighted guests. It ensures no one is forcing help upon the VI guests and yet is available.” The guidelines work rather well and help dissipate awkwardness if any; the openness of the VI guests helps even further.
“It is natural for people to not know what to say to us, but once we break the ice, it’s cool,” quips Shubham Arora, a Delhi-based visually-challenged businessman. Shubham has been so happy with his experiences with BAT Travels that he has done three trips with them already and hopes to do many more. “I like the fact that I can be with normal people and not in a group where all of us are at the mercy of one person. Plus, they do interesting things.” He goes on to add. Some, like Shubham, come back to BAT Travels for the camaraderie and comfort, while others like Tony Kurian, a 28-year-old PHD scholar, come for the freedom from prejudices. Having been thrown out of a bar in Kolkata for being blind, Tony found wings with BAT Travels and has travelled to over 7 places with them.
Then there are those who find it liberating to travel alone and indulge in activities that may traditionally not be considered safe for the visually impaired.
Vamsi G, a Deputy Manager with State Bank in Tirupati, for example, was nervous before taking his first solo trip. His fears ranged from being left to fend for himself to being lost in the forests. All his fears, however, were laid to rest minutes after he stepped into the car with the group. He ended up zip lining between cliffs, trekking, climbing passes and bathing in waterfalls. Ditto for 62-year-old Parimala Vishnubhatt, who jumped into the chilly waters of the Ganga on the river-rafting trip to Rishikesh without thinking twice.
A great deal of thought goes into planning these experiences. From deciding on a location, to talking to hotels, service providers, to sensitizing them with the needs of the guests, it is a long thought through process. Most enterprises are happy to accommodate, but some are not. “The paragliding vendors in Kamshet were not okay with taking the responsibility of blind people, we had to struggle to find one, quite a few of them turned us down in Rishikesh too.” Says Divya. “The general perception is that if a person cannot see, he will not be able to take care of himself, so we have to tell them that as long as you keep talking to them they will be okay, some people still don’t agree, some understand.” adds Ritu.
Understanding and empathy remain the key words at BAT Travel. From the staff at the hotels ensuring the VI guests are taken care of, to the forest rangers who invite them to their homes, to the travel pals who return having learnt a great deal from them, everyone loves the experience. As Arundhanti Dasgupta, a sighted guest with BAT Travels says, “every once in a while, we need to ‘see’ the world with a new perspective and let ourselves immerse in unparalleled joy that this world has in store for us, and BAT Travels facilitates just that for us.”
A version of this story first appeared in Firstpost.