Looking beyond the yonder

India's first blind solo paraglider and Himalayan tandem cyclist, Divyanshu Ganatra is a clinical psychologist, behavioural facilitator, and serial entrepreneur.  Ganatra lost his eyesight to glaucoma at the age of nineteen. His organisation Adventures Beyond Barriers Foundation promotes accessible adventure sports for people with and without disability.

He himself travels the globe to address audiences as well as participate in adventure sports including mountaineering, tandem cycling, trekking, and scuba diving. The key to Ganatra's success is his belief that obstacles exist to be overcome and disability is no stumbling block to personal dreams.

Ganatra talks to Swetha Amit on the concept of Adventure Beyond Barriers, his hopes of breaking stereotypes to enable inclusion for individuals with disabilities.

Adventure beyond Barriers (ABB) is a not for profit organisation that promotes adventure sports for the differently abled. Tell us how and when did the idea behind this initiative come about?
Adventure Beyond Barriers (ABB) promotes sports for individuals with disabilities along with the able-bodied as well. Our purpose was to get both these communities together to interact, to deal with and learn from one another, which otherwise does not happen. We felt that this would avoid all those misconceptions and stereotypes, which usually form only because the two sets of people do not have an opportunity to meet one another. It results in a world of unequal opportunities which is quite unfortunate.

For us, sports was a tool or a means to get both these communities to come, unite and develop a sense of camaraderie between them. Through sports, they get an opportunity to discover and understand about each other's life. We hope that this understanding inspires them to go and create that change out there in the world.

Could you tell us a little more about your background and journey?
I am a clinical psychologist and have worked in pathology for about five years dealing with brain disorders. Besides ABB, I also head an organisation for profit which is called Yellow Brick Road where we provide individual, educational and corporate solutions through psychology and counselling.  We basically work on the principle that the only way to prevent illness is to focus on wellness. I realised that we were only treating symptoms and not the person itself. If we could focus and deal with the root cause of the problem such as what led to the person landing up at the mental institute and what we could do to prevent that person from getting admitted here again, it would make a huge difference.

I have also been an outdoors person and feel that sports is the best way to discover yourself. I have been into mountaineering and two years ago I became the first blind pilot to fly solo. However, this feat did not change societal attitude towards people with disabilities and I was just written off as one odd exception.  I wanted to break these barriers and also spread the joy that I experienced to more people like me. I wanted to inspire 1,000 plus individual with disabilities to take up adventure sports and show the world that this was possible despite our condition. 

I began Adventure Beyond Barriers as a means to transform society by taking it to more number of people and shatter the stereotypes. It began about 2 years ago and it's been a beautiful journey ever since.

So how many members does your team comprise of?
Ever since it commenced two years ago, it was just me for a good one and a half years. Then I had three more members joining me. So now we are about a team of four. We have Tanya Ginwala who handles communication, Ishani who is an expert mountain climber and Yashasvini who handles compliance.  We also have some great mentors on board and a whole base of volunteers who I would like to refer  to as allies. We are a lean team but making sure we get some meaningful work done.

What made you chose adventure sports as your theme?  What are the different activities that individuals from your organisation have participated in?
We participate in marathons, duathlons and triathlons. We are also into mountaineering, trekking, camping, rock climbing, rappelling, water fall rappelling and paragliding.  Besides blind individuals we work with the deaf, amputees, paraplegics, quadriplegic, cross-disability and even intellectually challenged runners. In fact we supported an amputee summit at Mt Everest last season.

Another sport, which we have introduced is tandem cycling. We did a ride from Manali to Khardungla, which as you may recall is the highest motorable pass in the world. This July we are going to take about 40 people with us, which includes amputees, blind and able- bodied individuals. We also do scuba diving and offer PADI(Professional Association of Diving Instructors) certification [PADI is an International organization with certifications in snorkeling, scuba diving, etc, -ed].

How do those with visual or hearing impairment participate in activities like scuba diving and tandem cycling, since they are unable to see or hear instructions? What precautions should be taken while participating in such activities?
Tandem cycling is meant for two riders so the sighted person is usually the captain who leads and the blind person sits behind. They work together as a team. If you go to our website, you will see videos of our tandem cycling trip from Manali to Khardungla posted there.

Scuba Diving is a different ball game altogether. We have managed to devise new ways of communicating under water. I usually dive with my diving buddy and we have managed to establish our own novel way of communicating under water with different signals and signs. So we have our own language underwater.

As for safety, we have adopted the highest levels of safety measures possible. We have certified first aid people, highest level of European equipment, doctors on call, emergency numbers, ambulances, notify the nearest police stations, etc. Besides this, we also study the various disabilities in a thorough manner. We also ensure that we do proper orientation and training for dis-abled and the abled. In fact, for the upcoming tandem cycling trip in July, we are starting practice and orientation four months ahead of the main event. We also ensure that we get the right kind of training, nutrition and a certificate from the doctor stating we are fit enough to embark on this sort of journey. So a lot of preparation goes into every activity that we participate in.

 You see adventure sports are expensive as the equipment and the trips cost us a lot of money. At present, we are self-funded and more often many of these individuals with disabilities come from underprivileged backgrounds.  I believe that money should not be one thing to stop you from spreading your wings and exploring the world. Ideally, I would like to take a bunch of our people to the Andamans but the airfare alone works out to be an exorbitant sum. Besides, as I mentioned earlier, we have this cycling trip coming up in July, which is working up to be quite expensive. Right now, since we are cash strapped, we cannot over indulge.

Have do you normally mobilise resources?
Well we tried crowdfunding for tandem cycling and we managed to raise 50 - 60 per cent of our requirement through this. We will be doing that again this year. However, the sponsorships are very limited for adventure sports. In fact, there have been several people who have scaled Mt. Everest several times but have struggled with sponsorships despite having broken world records. It is tough, but we have learnt to take it in our stride. So we just keep chipping way as we strongly believe that things will eventually work out one fine day. 

How do you as an organisation work on reaching a wider audience and keep tab of the various sports-related events around the country?
Mostly its internet. We have also been fortunate enough to have been covered a lot by the media.  So in that sense we have had that outreach. I have also been connected to the disability community for about 17 years so that community helped me gain a wide reach around. 

With regards to sports events, we keep an eye on what's happening around the country. Since we are connected to the health and fitness industry, we get notifications of the events that take place. I was also on the TED platform twice so that helped us a lot. A lot of people have also been reaching out to us.

We are also tied up the Mumbai Road Runners which is a large community of runners from across the country. Their admin team has been very supportive of us.  Since both our organisations are purpose-driven and love what we are doing, we joined hands. We often need sighted professional runners as allies for our blind runners and believe me, pacing blind runners is a life-altering experience indeed. We want to provide that incredible experience for runners across the country.

Could you elaborate more about your scale of operations? Any plans of expanding your network?
Well so far, we have been working in Pune, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Chennai. Our base is in Pune. We would like to slowly expand to other cities as well and scale up our operations once we get our compliance in place. Once we get some funding, we should. 

Do you see a change in society's attitude towards the differently-abled from the time ABB commenced?
Well there have been endless stories. I am just going to give you a few. One big challenge was employment despite having an impeccable resume. People are awkward around individuals with disabilities. When they see a blind guy walk into an interview room, they freak out as they have never met a blind guy before. Instead of saying ''Hey you know this is the work you got to do, tell me how you are going to do it?'' they just merely say ''oh great what you have done is wonderful. We will let you know'' and ultimate never get back.  You never hear from them again as they don't understand how a blind person can use computers. They just don't know that blind people can use a computer like everybody else and they just use a screen reader.

There was this head of an MNC company who had come for a trek with us. By the end of the trek, she was amazed and she remarked saying she didn't realise how individuals with disabilities could do this one. She just wasn't aware as she had never met anyone with a disability. She goes back to her organisation and is now running a diversity initiative across the organisation. She has hired more than a 100 people with disabilities already. And she doesn't want to be named anywhere. What she has done is incredible.

So there are numerous such stories. However, in terms of attitudinal change, it's still work in progress. We have a long way to go. You see there are 200 million people in our country and you barely see a fraction of us around. There still exists a lot of social attitude, which needs to be removed. There is this belief that if you help someone with a disability then you are coming in God's way as God wants these persons with disabilities to suffer their Karma. So there exists all kinds of crazy notions. Besides this, infrastructure facilities need to improve.

The world I dream of is still far ahead. However being the eternal optimist that I am, I don't give up easily and I strongly believe there will be a revolution which will eventually make things fall into place.

Lastly what are your plans for ABB in the upcoming future?
We have some big plans. One big dream is to set up a completely accessible sports recreational centre for both the communities (able-bodied and disabled) to come and play together. It definitely is a challenge. You see most of my friends are wheel chair bound and even if they wish to go somewhere or do something, there are not enough facilities to support them and most of the time they end up staying at home. I want complete independence for them and that's the level of accessibility I am talking about. I want them to be able to go out and do something be it wheelchair bound or individuals with quadriplegics or paraplegics.

The huge benefits that I see are that such individuals tend to get some physical exercise which is good considering their otherwise sedentary lifestyle. 

There are also psychological benefits in terms of high self-esteem and achievement orientation. They develop a new sense of identity apart from them being known as people with disabilities. I strongly feel that when you play, you translate this play or sport to other challenges in life.  It gives them a ray of hope ultimately. So that's the bigger picture I am looking at in the future.