Tap into the sights of historic Fort Kochi lanes, view the Chinese Fishing nets from raised platforms, or feel the waves of Shankumugham beach even if you are bound to a wheelchair. Also, hear the legends and stories of Kerala through sign language. Order unassisted the Kerala sadya or Thalassery biryani from the Braille menus. Kerala is getting ready to extend its warm hospitality to all - and the differently abled and their caretakers are most welcome!
The successful culmination of the first phase of Barrier Free Kerala in 2019, the ambitious but much-needed initiative taken by Kerala Tourism Department, has made touring the enchanting state a possibility for the differently abled. Apart from the ramps, easy availability of wheelchairs, crutches, and other resources to facilitate easy manoeuvre, the state has also provisioned for specially trained staff who can guide the tourists in sign language. Audio guides and information in Braille language can give further assistance.
Accessible tourism is redefining accessibility by looking not at how locales are labelled accessible not based on the transportation facilities but for whom it is accessible and emphasises on making travel a more viable option for those with physical or cognitive impairments. The incompetence of our society at providing infrastructural support to the disabled should not be a reason to prevent them from partaking the sights of different communities, safely. With advanced assistance, it will also be possible for the caretakers to explore around.
In a society where even day-to-day functions in familiar grounds prove difficult, enabling a travel atmosphere for the differently empowered comes with a lot of additional responsibility. The enthusiasm behind the project in Kerala should not wear off after the initial phases. For it is not only a novel idea but it's high time that we brought the differently abled into the common fold. It is gratifying to know that in some popular zones in Kerala tourists are seen tapping its sights, some on foot, others on electric wheelchairs, some reading from tactile guides, others listening to audio guides or sign language- but all delighted by what they experience.
Alappuzha has reportedly the first disabled-friendly beach in the country. The beach at this picturesque place has a 50-metre wide ramp on one side. The Braille signposts and audio-visual guides help the needy.
A joint effort of the Tourism department, health department, voluntary organisations and associations for the disabled, the developed beach is equipped with automatic wheelchairs as well. The project was well appreciated by the differently empowered who were grateful to the government for providing easy access to the beach which has now become a major place of recreation for them.
Fort Kochi was amongst the first tourist hotspots to be upgraded for the disabled-friendly tag. Famous for its yesteryear Dutch-Portuguese buildings, the Chinese fishing nets, and now the beautiful cafes and the enthralling Muziris Biennale, Fort Kochi has a lot more to offer. Complete with frequent ramps with non-slippery tiles that easily make way to eating zones, spill-out arenas, and washroom facilities ideal for the differently abled etc., Fort Kochi can be easily toured.
The famous Chinese nets, a Kochi speciality, can be viewed from raised platforms bordered with hand railings and lamps for support. This enables even those sitting on the chairs to view from a desirable position.
Shankumugham Beach, Thiruvananthapuram
The pristine beach in the state capital is all in for more revamp and has already enabled ramps and walkways across the area. Special mats are spread out to ease the wheels on to the beach enabling the differently abled people to take a stroll on the sands. An additional feature is the installation of alarms to inform others in case of requirement of help. Arrangements for signs and instructions in Braille and audio-visual aids will be made available in due course.
The Tourism Department also looks forward to launching curated tours that can heighten the experience for the differently abled. The initiative will be in collaboration with the Responsible Tourism Mission, another programme of the department. Customised tours will not only ensure easy comfortable travel for their takers but also let the government know how beneficial the services are and how further ventures must be taken.
There are already many tour companies that offer packages to the disabled to Kerala and other places in India. Companies like Royal Indian Voyages and Enable Travels with their campaign #CanDo provide accessible tours at affordable rates. The tours are customised based on the disability of vision, speech, hearing and locomotion. Hotels which are accessible and with all facilities needed are chosen for stay and the volunteers appointed are capable of communicating with the customers. Opting for such tour services can be a relief for the person as well as the caretakers.
Thus, while it is heartening to note that departmental initiatives are enabling the otherwise marginalised community to mingle with the mainstream public, continuous efforts must be ensured to make sure the services retain the quality. Different tactile tours can be an ideal way to promote handicrafts, artefacts in museum and other products which will reap benefits for the artisans as well. Promoting tours for the deaf would mean encouraging more youngsters to volunteer for learning sign languages and being guides.
The project, which has completed its first lap, should be promoted further until the entire state becomes truly friendly to the differently abled. The public too must be supportive of the government enterprise by protecting the installations and constructions and moreover by encouraging the intended beneficiaries to utilise them. Responsible citizens can help their peers in need by informing them of the facilities, helping them use them thus giving them a new lease of life.