India is estimated to have almost 12 million people with visual impairments and yet, it wasn’t until a mandatory community project in eighth grade that I first encountered the visually impaired. As a quiet child, I found myself awkward and struggling to communicate with someone who didn’t see the world as I did — all colourful and distinguished. Even today, when I look back at that one Sunday, I can distinctly remember how I felt – uneducated and embarrassed about how I wasn’t the least bit prepared for the situation; feelings I have managed to silently sweep under the rug ever since.
It was a similar chance encounter that led to Divya Saxena and Ritu Sinha quitting their day jobs and dedicating their entrepreneurial skills to a noble cause.
After coming across two blind gentlemen at a famous tourist destination in Rome, Divya and Ritu couldn’t help but wonder about what it’s like to experience the world without the gift of sight. A few discussions and two resignation letters later, they’d decided to start Bat Travels — India’s first travel company that would organise tours for both the sighted and the visually impaired. A venture that’s inclusive in its truest sense, Bat Travels was officially launched last year and conducted its first trip in December 2017. “Just like a bat uses its other senses to travel far and wide, all our itineraries are also designed to keep the tour extremely sensory in nature, by intriguing the other four senses”, they tell us.
But the aim at Bat Travels is not just to facilitate the visually impaired to experience the world, rather, it’s to enable them to explore it in the company of other people, without feeling side-lined in any possible way. Thereby giving them the opportunity to interact outside of their regular community. “Our sighted travellers are ‘travel pals’ for our unsighted friends. Assisting them, accompanying them, explaining the scenery around. It works both ways, the sighted get an experience like never before. And the unsighted get to go to destinations frequented by the sighted.”
From a music trail through the backwaters of Kerala to paragliding in Himachal, Bat Travels’ tours are carefully chalked out to every last detail, ensuring that the experience is highly sensory. Beer tastings, live music performances, cultural visits to memorials and churches – their itineraries are extremely well-planned and organised. “We sensitise our vendors and hotel staff about the needs of our unsighted friends. We do away with buffets and get special permissions and always check the capability of the service provider for things like paragliding”, says Divya.
However, it is the awareness level that is the biggest challenge for the duo. As people often feel very awkward around the visually impaired because they don’t want to say or do anything that might seem insensitive or inappropriate. To overcome this, Divya and Ritu share brief literature enumerating the etiquette around a visually impaired person with their sighted travellers before embarking on the journey.
Having been around for only 9 months, the founders of Bat Travels couldn’t be more happy with the pioneering space they seem to have created, “One of our visually impaired travelers, Shubham Arora, joined us on our first trip—it was his first independent trip too. So we reassured his family that he would be safe. Later, we were overwhelmed to find out that Shubham now frequently travels alone for both work as well as pleasure.”
For Divya and Ritu, it’s about empowering the visually impaired community of India to be able to venture out into the wilderness, without parental supervision, and claim their own spaces in hotels and other tourist destinations, that are not necessarily friendly to its differently-abled visitors. In fact, they are soon going to be conducting international trips to Thailand and Sri Lanka as well.
To sign up for one of Bat Travels’ tours, visit their website.
Feature image courtesy of Oinam Anand.
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