Neha Arora is the founder of Planet Abled, an organisation which provides accessible and inclusive travel solutions for people with different disabilities. She was also one of our top 50 Rising Stars of 2016.
Tell us about yourself and your background…
I am Neha Arora, a regular girl who has mixed genes of being an oaf and a chipper. A rebel at heart, who is liberated by free will, loves travel photography and breaking societal norms. Having a totally non utilized engineering degree up my sleeve, I worked in the corporate for 9 years, before I found my life’s purpose. Or rather I should say, my life’s purpose found me; to start Planet Abled, a social enterprise providing customized travel solutions for people with disabilities. My personal not so good travel experiences with my parents with disabilities, invoked a desire in me to create a travel solution which was the need of the hour. I have a totally underutilized Electronics & Communication engineering degree up my sleeve. I worked in a corporate environment for almost nine years with companies like HCL, Nokia & Adobe in various capacities like Pre Sales, Enterprise Sales & Account Management, before finally taking the plunge to start Planet Abled.
Tell us about the company you have set up – when did you set it up, what products or services do you provide, what is your target market?
For a person with a disability or the family/friends of someone who is, travelling to unknown territories pops up a lot of questions in their mind. Inaccessibility, lack of basic amenities and people’s sympathy are just some of the barriers they might face. People with disabilities are not considered part of our mainstream society and are always looked upon with sympathetic views and in need of support. When it comes to indulging in travel and leisure activities, this is something that people don’t even consider them doing.
St. Augustine said –
‘The world is a book and those who don’t travel, read only one page.’
Then why should one miss out on reading the most beautiful chapters of life just because they have a disability? Planet Abled identified this gap and came forward in January this year to give people with disabilities the freedom to travel and to break their limitations and get into mainstream leisure and travel. Giving them an avenue to visit places freely and confidently, leaving behind social inhibitions and apprehensions about their capabilities. We mix people of different disabilities together into one large group along with travel buddies who assist the travellers while on tour. This creates an inclusive and diverse group of people with disabilities and people without medically proven disabilities travelling together. A perfect example of inclusive tourism with no discrimination on the basis of disabilities or abilities.
So, whether they want to experience a small facet of the city they are in or they want to travel across multiple cities of their interest, Planet Abled has something unique, safe and enjoyable for them. Planet Abled wants to open doors for people with disabilities to travel the way they want. If they are alone and want to travel with a group, if they want to travel solo, if they want to travel with their family/kids/parents/partner/friends or if they want to go on a honeymoon after their wedding, the possibilities are endless.
‘Our Planet is Our Common Inheritance – Everything Is For Everyone’.
Why did you set up the company? / What drove you to become an Entrepreneur?
My personal travel experiences as a daughter of parents with disabilities led to the inception of Planet Abled. My father is visually impaired and mother is orthopedically challenged, but we all are fond of traveling. We would face a lot of issues in terms of accessibility and the kind of leisure activities available when we traveled. There were often instances when we traveled 2000 miles only to discover that the place is not accessible or does not offer the kind of experience my father would have enjoyed. And of course insensitivity and sympathy of society offered barriers often.
There came a point when our parents stopped travelling, citing the reason that it is a lot of hassle for us and therefore not enjoyable. They asked us to travel without them. This hit me really hard. I wondered that if we are facing this issue, others might also be feeling the same. When I looked for solutions there was none. I could not have waited till eternity for someone to come out and solve a herculean problem that existed.
The moment this struck, each day at the job became difficult, despite the fact that you had to take care of the bills which the cushy job helped. But it was a huge task with no set models. I did my homework and research for nearly two years before finally taking the plunge in November 2015, and left the job at Adobe.
What has been your biggest challenge in achieving your success?
Success is not something we just achieve. It is an on-going process. The journey is still on and the challenges keep on coming. But I think taking the first step was the most difficult one. Having retired parents and family responsibilities, the great salary at the end of each month took care of the bills and everything. Salary is one of the biggest addictions one might have.
So taking the decision that it won’t come now and you have to invest your time and money in the business as well, is really scary. Because there is a huge change in your lifestyle and things around, until of course, you are rich enough and have a big bank balance and can absorb these financial challenges at ease. Struggling to pay bills every month is the biggest challenge.
What has been your greatest achievement so far?
The biggest achievement was when the idea came to life. When I could actually make something happen. History was created when the first tour of Planet Abled was successfully conducted. A first of its kind in the world, where people of various disabilities come forward to travel together. For many it was the first time they ever visited a heritage site and for many it was the happiest day of their lives. What more I could have asked for? Since then, there has been no looking back with innovative tours and recreation activities conducted every time. From group tours to a blind person travelling solo from Assam to Uttrakhand, pottery workshops to poetry sessions, booking a full metro coach for an hour and conducting a stand-up comedy and music jam session in a running train, and now coming up with a group tour to the golden triangle. Every tour has been an achievement in itself.
Another feather in the cap happened when Planet Abled won the NCPEDP-Mphasis Universal Design Award for the year 2016. With co-awardees like Indigo Airlines & SAP Labs, and awardees like Accenture, Wipro & Cisco in the past, it sure is a big accomplishment in just a matter of 9 months of operations. It indeed makes one believe that we are on the right path of making a deep social impact and it is well appreciated by the country.
Who has been your biggest inspiration?
My early influences have come from my parents who taught me life skills much ahead of my peers very early in life. Giving me all the independence in the world to pursue whatever I wanted to do in my life.
From an early age, I had to engage in things or accompany my parents to places a normal child won’t ever get exposed to. It’s not that they couldn’t manage without us, but it was a real life training they gave us deliberately so that we become independent soon. Their disability actually turned out to be a positive aspect for us, making us much more independent and mentally prepared to face anything in life and run our daily errands more effectively.
How do you balance your work life and home life?
Honestly there is no balance as such. Both just go hand in hand. It depends on the priority of the task which could either be related to work or home. Sometimes something at home is more important and urgent than anything that could happen at work and sometimes it’s the other way round. At the end of the day it is just one me and one life, there is no segregation as such, neither does it exist for me and nor I believe in it.
What advice do you have for women starting out on their own?
Don’t listen to what the world says about you or your capabilities, just follow your heart and take the plunge. Even if it feels scary in the start, which it surely will, don’t worry – conquer that fear and move forward.
And when someone asks you to make a choice, always listen to the quaint little voice inside, ignoring all rationalism and logic. I often see women wanting to make everyone happy and never bother about what they want or at times give up on their career. You don’t have to do it. Yes, you can have it all but you have to drive things your way in your life. You are here to create a best version of yourself not to please anyone. It is your passion that drives you and your business, keep that fire burning.
Can you recommend any organisations or networking groups that have particularly helped you on your journey?
I would say it has been the travelers who have shown trust in us always which do not belong to any particular group as such. They are all segregated across genders, geographies and professions.
If you could ask for one thing to help propel your business what would it be?
Places around us to be made accessible for people with all disabilities, be it in terms of physical and technological infrastructure or societal mind set. So that PwD’s can also lead an equally active lifestyle like everyone else and can engage in travel and leisure at an equal ease.
What does the future hold for you?
Through Planet Abled I want to impact the lives of all the people with disabilities out there, by making them experience the planet the way they want to. To make Planet Abled an organization which they trust and believe in for all their accessible travel and recreation needs. An inclusive tourism platform where people with different disabilities and without medically proven disabilities travel together, breaking all barriers and social inhibitions.
People with disabilities need to break their limitations and get into mainstream leisure and travel. We give the disabled an avenue to visit places freely and confidently, leaving behind social inhibitions and apprehensions about their capabilities. Whether they want to travel to other countries or enjoy adventure trips or if people from other countries want to travel to India and explore the wonderful country we are, nothing should stop them.
I want to take Planet Abled to a point where people from across the world enjoy inclusive travel. The concept we work on, of mixing people of all disabilities together is followed by none in the world. Not even the few accessible travel companies that exist abroad. They focus either on wheelchair travel or travel for the blind.
I want to break this barrier completely by spreading the concept of universal design in travel, where everyone travels together irrespective of whether they have a disability or no medically proven disability.
We are going to convert people with disabilities into travelers and create a platform for inclusive tourism alongside.
Check out Planet Abled here