Disabled people have equal right to enjoy the outdoors – My Take by Anusha Subramanian
Anusha Subramanian, a British Chevening Scholar and a two-time award-winning journalist is a health, fitness and adventure enthusiast. She has combined her skills sets of writing and adventure training to be able to work for the larger good of the society by getting more people, especially the disabled and underprivileged, introduced to outdoor activities like trekking and biking.
I just completed the 50KM-GOQii Trail Challenge 2019 in Maharashtra in 16:31 hours along with Sanket Bhirud who was born blind. We were the only team of one sighted and one blind among 120 odd participants. The trail challenge was arduous, not just for us but for the other sighted people participating.
When I asked Sanket to partner with me on this trail, all he asked was what it was all about. Maybe that’s because we knew each other well and he was aware I had successfully led an expedition to Kilimanjaro. He trusted me from the word go and that’s all one needs from a teammate to handle the challenges that come along the way.
Challenge for the cause of inclusion of disabled
We were doing this challenge for inclusion. Inclusion of disabled people in the outdoors as well as the lesser privileged. We were raising funds for Greensole, an organisation that makes new footwear from old discarded shoes. These shoes are given for free to lesser privileged kids in villages.
A lot of people ask how we managed to do this challenge. Well, we did it like every other participant. I knew the trail would not be easy and planned in advance for things we could encounter along the way. Trekking or tandem cycling with disabled people doesn’t bother me as I believe passionately in inclusive adventures. Disability isn’t a dis-qualifier, it just needs to be accounted for.
Mountains are for everyone, disability does not count
As a certified mountaineer and mountain guide, I focus on taking as many people to the mountains as possible, irrespective of disability. Climbing has taught me patience and resilience. I know what it is like to be excluded. A chronic asthmatic, I was turned down by trekking companies who said high altitude was risky. I did not give up and worked hard to reach peak physical fitness to pursue this passion. This passion is now a purpose.
Sanket was fully aware of what he was getting into. He took responsibility for his actions like everyone else. We signed a waiver form and I made sure to keep him safe. I had a whole back up with a safety rope, first aid kit, whistle, Swiss knife as well as extra food and water. I was equipped for any eventualities we may encounter. I was glad about this foresight because we did not encounter a single soul except at checkpoints.
So how did we manage to complete the trail challenge?
I used something called the sighted guide technique where the blind person walks beside a mountain guide. In this case that was Sanket and I. We determined our positions through verbal communication and by Sanket holding my elbow/ shoulder, or a wooden stick. Where there were boulders to climb, Sanket used all four limbs.
The biggest challenge was to cross two big boulders between two checkpoints. The gap was wide and filled with waist deep water. I had to find a way to get Sanket to the other side safely. I first did it for myself and figured out the grip and then got Sanket across. He followed my instructions and jumped in one shot and made it safely to the other side.
Trekking with a disabled person needs trust
This is the best part of walking with someone who is blind. If you are able to build a level of trust, they follow every instruction. At many places, Sanket made his own judgement too so he felt comfortable. This made the challenge enjoyable for both of us.
We did not require special privileges but a spotter in between the trails would have helped. We completed the last walk to the finish line in one hour and 20 minutes, crossing the finish line at 9.31 PM together. We completed the trail challenge in 16:31 hours.
For both of us the walk was challenging experience and one full of learnings. I had a chance to hone my skills as a sighted guide. Having spent time with disabled people, I realise that many of the notions about them are inaccurate. If you have not spent enough time with disabled people, you tend to believe what you see and hear. Also, they are not differently abled or specially abled people. They are like other human beings and are extremely capable. Calling them differently abled is condescending.
Outdoors should be accessible to all, disabled and non-disabled
The outdoors is exhilarating, inspiring, and even therapeutic. Unfortunately, it is not easily accessible to all. Trekking or running a marathon are pursuits that can be enjoyed by many people but can be challenging for disabled people. Limited accessibility to outdoor recreation areas means that many disabled people have never experienced hiking or scuba diving. Finding help is difficult.
The mountains do not differentiate so why do we differentiate between people. Why cannot disabled people enjoy a like everyone else? Why can’t they step into the outdoors and soak in nature’s beauty? There are many such whys’ but I would rather focus on what can be done.
I believe that to change something, be the change yourself. I have been practicing this for the last few years. I have aligned myself to the cause of bringing diversity and inclusivity of people with disabilities into the outdoors. Why should anyone be left out? Everyone should recognise this lacunae and act on it.
We are alike in more ways than we are different. Disabled people are regular human beings with the same kind of interests. One needs to take the time out to get to know them and you will understand how cool and funny these guys are.
Sanket has a good sense of humour and along the way we had great conversations which kept us going and motivated. Sanket did not choose to go blind. It is the choices he made that define who he is today.
I have learned that disabled people are far more resilient and up for challenges than non-disabled people are. I can confidently say that I have learnt enough to be confident to take the blind on treks and do more of these trail challenges with them.