Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro to Prove Persons With Disabilities Can Be Sportspeople Too

"I’ve seen people from different communities (disabled and able-bodied) work together on treks and become friends by the end,” says one the organisers, who is visually impaired himself.

Thirteen people, including ten Indians, are setting out in September to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. They have a cause they want to highlight – disability inclusivity. Three of the climbers are visually impaired, including two Indians, Divyanshu Ganatra and Prasad Gurav.

Divyanshu Ganatra (40), one of the visually impaired climbers and founder of the not-for-profit Adventures Beyond Barriers Foundation (ABBF), laughs at the reaction of many when they get to know of this. This shock and amazement are what they are climbing against – shock borne out of ignorance at a person with disabilities’ abilities.

“It’s about the right training methods and opportunities,” says Ganatra, a clinical psychologist, two-time entrepreneur and all-round adventurer. He has many credits to his name – India’s first solo blind paraglider, trekker, mountaineer, scuba diver, marathoner and first blind pillion cyclist to ride from Manali to Khardung La – and so knows a lot about disability and accessible adventure sports.

To prove that he is not an exception, Ganatra founded ABBF to mainstream disability inclusion in adventure sports. In its one and half years, ‘3500 people with disabilities and 1.5 lakh able-bodied people’ have already become a part of their adventure community.

Divyanshu Ganatra at the Pinkathon. Credit: ABBF

Divyanshu Ganatra at the Pinkathon. Credit: ABBF

The Mount Kilimanjaro team includes Ganatra, three sighted certified guides Anusha Subramanian, Vaishak J.P. and Karn Kowshik, three other sighted first-time trekkers Adi Raheja, Omana Kale and Nupur Pittie, along with filmmakers Sehran Mohsin and Omkar Potda. There are three participants from Israel – Sophie Donio and her 14-year-old son Baepi Donio and visually impaired climber Uri Basha. It’s an eight-day trek in September, costing around Rs 1.75 lakh per person.

One of the guides, Subramanian (45), is a journalist, mountaineer and founder of Summiting4Hope, a social initiative that aims to give back by undertaking expeditions for various causes.

In 2015, Ganatara and Subramanian first met through her research on the BBC Worldwide show Aaj Ki Raat Hai Zindagi that featured Ganatra with Amitabh Bachchan. As the brand ambassador of ABBF, Subramanian spearheaded inclusive expedition.

After bonding with Ganatra over being adventure sportspeople, she admits she was uncertain, but curious, about how a person with disabilities could trek alongside her. Going on hikes and trips with people from ABBF has transformed her view.

Awakened to the possibilities of inclusion, Subramanian decided that this was the cause she would trek for. And so they teamed up for their upcoming international trek to the highest mountain in Africa.

“It’s a fairly easy terrain and we have adjusted the schedules to account for different abilities, so a three-hour stretch would take us five to seven hours. But everyone has done some form of adventure sport before, “ she says to The Wire.

On a Himalayan expedition. Credit: Anusha Subramanium

On a Himalayan expedition. Credit: Anusha Subramanian

Ganatra said he, and every other climber, are following almost the same routine of cardio, weight training and regular exercise to stay fit. “Initially, it’s difficult for anyone new, not just someone with disabilities,” he says. But his sports background has helped hone him and keep him prepared for treks like these.

‘Create the space’

The mental preparation for the trek has been a long time coming for Ganatra. He learnt early on that it would be an uphill battle to get such opportunities. When wanting to paraglide solo, he was rejected seven times before finding a willing trainer (Avi Malik of TemplePilots) who understood that different people need different training.

“Sport was always important to me before I lost my eyesight (to glaucoma at age 19) so I still wanted it to be part of my life.” To share what he already knew, that disability wasn’t a complete no-go but needed accounting for with sensitivity and other training methods, he started ABBF. “You yourself have to create the space,” he said.

He says ABBF has many sporting opportunities, from hiking to tandem biking to scuba diving. Each sport has empathetic trainers dedicated to moving beyond one-dimensional methods of teaching.

So, in a sport like scuba diving that needs underwater communication, trainers work instead with more inclusive tactile methods.

“We’re conditioned into thinking we can’t do certain things. Failure is so feared, we don’t even try. We need to celebrate failure,” says Ganatra, “because it means at least we tried.”

This is not only for persons with disabilities but everyone who doesn’t fit into the mould of a typical athlete. Subramanian says the largest group she takes hiking with her are women over 50. ABBF’s tandem cycling event includes able-bodied people, but also different kinds of persons with disabilities, cancer survivors, amputees, senior citizens and anyone who tries.

Ganatra tells us about a woman in her late 50s who was terrified of riding a cycle, as she had never done it. After breaking down the 550 km stretch (that of Manali to Khardung La) into smaller goals for regular training, she attempted the journey. She completed one-third of the journey and was a success story at ABBF.

Sports as a unifier

Ganatra says the idea of ABBF is to “use sports and adventure to bring about social change through different communities coming together – especially persons with disabilities and able-bodied people”.

As per the Census 2011 in India, out of a 121 crore population, 2.21% or 2.68 crore are persons with disabilities. This large number often gets excluded from spaces designed specifically for able-bodied, male people. This is especially so with places of leisure and play that are seen as dangerous and frivolous. Ganatra calls persons with disabilities “the largest invisible minority community”.

“People are not bad, just unaware of how to act around a disabled person, so they’re awkward and we’re left out from mingling. I’ve seen people from different communities (disabled and able-bodied) work together on treks and become friends by the end,” says Ganatra.

“Everyone should experience for themselves the beauty and fun of nature,” he says.