Umoja, A New Travel Company Catering To India’s Handicapable Travellers

Despite being home to the world’s largest differently-abled population, India remains very limited in its efforts made towards making their lives easier in terms of accessibility. Stephen Hawking, in 2001, made clear India’s attitude towards its differently abled citizens when he announced his desire to visit a number of historic monuments, the Taj Mahal, Red Fort, Humayun’s Tomb, Jantar Mantar and the Qutab Minar, only to realise that none of these places are accessible for the differently-abled. Not only was it a national and international embarrassment, but what’s even more shocking is that not much has changed since then, even though the Persons with Disabilities Act was passed in 1995. In our talk with Divyanshu Ganatra, blind psychologist, disability rights advocate and paraglider, what was brought to the forefront was the fact that efforts made need to be less about ‘helping’ this community of people so much as it is about empowering them to take their lives into their own hands and make choices for themselves.

Things have slowly begun to change, we now have a wheelchair-friendly beach in Gujarat, and visually impaired-friendly railway station in Mysuru; last December, the Modi-government launched the Accessible India campaign, in which it’s projected that India would be transformed into a differently-abled friendly country, but we still have a very long way to go. Taking a step in the direction of progress is a company called Umoja, which as stated on their website is the Kiswahili word for inclusive, and that’s what they aim for–making travel inclusive for all. In short, Umoja is an online portal that provides helpful knowledge for the differently-abled community to ease their travel plans with all necessary information about how disabled-friendly and accessible hotels and restaurants are in the region they’re planning to visit. It all began for CEO and co-founder of Umoja Yeshwant Holkar after a friendly conversation with his aunt.

“There are over 1.1 billion people with disabilities in the world, and over a 180 million in India,” says Holker. “Research shows that 48% of disabled travelers would travel more frequently if better quality information were available. 60% of disabled guests encounter obstacles at hotels, and 36% cite a lack of convenient accessible rooms at all.” In conversation with the young entrepreneur, what became clear to us is that raising awareness about the need for accessibility in society plays a key role in initiating a change in how the countrymen treat and view their differently-abled peers.

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Screenshot of Umoja websites easy navigation

How did the idea to conceptualise such a website come about?

The idea for UMOJA came out of a conversation with my aunt, who is one of the most avid and adventurous travelers I know (and also a wheelchair user).  She told me how difficult it was for her to find a hotel that was actually accessible for her. Often a hotel would state that it was accessible, but far too often the hotel staff didn’t really understand what that meant. Even though hotels wanted to help, they simply didn’t know what a roll-in shower was or whether the bedroom door was actually wide enough for a wheelchair to pass through.

Despite spending weeks researching the one or two vacations my aunt was able to take a year, she would still encounter a doorway that was too narrow for her wheelchair or a small but crucial step to the restaurant. These were serious issues for people with mobility impairments, and it made me think about the barriers that people with visual and auditory impairments also face when they travel.  It’s important to remember that accessibility is not just about people with disabilities, but also the elderly, who are looking for travel options that are easier for them to appreciate as they slow down.

It didn’t take that much digging to realize how widespread this problem really is.  There are over 1.1 billion people with disabilities in the world, and over a 180 million in India. Research shows that 48% of disabled travelers would travel more frequently if better quality information were available. 60% of disabled guests encounter obstacles at hotels, and 36% cite a lack of convenient accessible rooms at all.

It seemed clear to me that this information gap could be bridged and travelers with disabilities would benefit tremendously from having reliable, highly detailed information about whether or not a destination met their specific accessibility requirements.

So I teamed up with Ben Musgrave, a friend I met at INSEAD business school, who has had over 10 years of experience working in accessibility at organizations such as Leonard Cheshire Disability, Handicap Internationale, and the UN, and we started putting UMOJA together.

How has Umoja been received by the public? 

After tremendous amount of hard work, we’ve gotten the hotel industry to start looking at accessibility as an opportunity more than an obligation. Early adopters like the Taj, Marriott, Lemontree, Sarovar, and Oberoi have all signed up as UMOJA partner hotels.  We’ve gotten over 80 hotels across India on the platform, and will increase that number to over 300 in the next 8-12 months.

We are convinced that if we show hotels more business from this segment, we will get them to invest in becoming even more accessible.  Our job now is to get a big response for those hotels that have bought in to this vision.

While we have built our hotel partnerships, we’ve also been organizing individual trips for persons with disabilities coming to India.  For example, we arranged a accessible trip across the golden triangle for Martin Heng (the accessible travel manager of the lonely planet and a wheelchair user).  We even got him down to Ranthambore to see some tigers!  We’re also arranging trips to Goa, Kerala, Mumbai, Bangalore and looking into Ooty.

Image courtesy Umoja

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We are actually in the process of creating an accessible guide to Goa, telling people about the many accessible hotels, restaurants, and tourist attractions.  There are accessible places, but often its hard to find out about them. For example, Go With the Flow, an excellent Brazilian inspired restaurant near Baga, has a wheelchair accessible bathroom and ramp access.

We are now getting ready to launch the site and get people with disabilities out there traveling.  We’re looking forward to showing the hospitality industry that improving accessibility is not only the right thing to do ethically, but the smart thing to do financially.

How disabled-friendly is India? In your opinion, what are some of the measures the government needs to undertake to change the current situation.

Overall India isn’t very accessible, but it is getting better.  There are lots of great NGOs that have been doing really good work in this area, but ultimately it will have to be the private sector or the government that push through real change.  What’s encouraging is that the private sector is focusing more on disability and accessibility, especially in the area of employment (Cafe Coffee Day has started employing people with auditory impairments, Lemon tree Hotels is doing very good work employing people with downs syndrome) but obviously much more has to be done.

The Ministry of Social Justice and the PMO have launched the Accessible India Campaign, which aims at improving public infrastructure, access to information. While the vision and drive of the campaign are truly commendable, I hope to see implementation and follow through.

Words: Sara Hussain

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