Making waves – meet Divyanshu Ganatra
Despite losing his sight to glaucoma at 19, Divyanshu Ganatra refused to settle for the dire work prospects on offer and instead started an adventure sports not-for-profit organization open to everyone, but particularly those faced with disability-related stigma in India.
‘For us, sport is just a tool to bring about change,’ says Ganatra, the founder of Adventures Beyond Barriers Foundation (ABBF). ‘We’re creating experiences that challenge perspectives and invite you to see another world that coexists.’ ABBF has taken over 154,000 adrenaline junkies, including 4,000 people with disabilities, on inclusive expeditions across India since 2014.
Since the onset of his blindness, Ganatra has lived with the stigma and the marginalization that comes with a disability. Keen on adventure sports, he found ‘my friends left me out of their plans because I could no longer climb mountains or cycle with them’. He wanted to change things for other people with disabilities – 26.8 million in India alone.
When he lost his sight, Ganatra checked into a counselling centre to find out if he could still fulfil his life’s goals as a person with visual disability. But the only career prospects were becoming a telephone operator or making chalk or cane furniture. His dreams of pursuing computer studies seemed increasingly distant.
In the absence of willing teachers, it took Ganatra a few years to teach himself computer skills in the 1990s, before assistive technology had come into existence. He later worked as an information technology professional and a clinical psychologist.
But getting back to adventure sports was continuously on his mind. Ganatra checked several times with travel organizers, but they were neither willing nor equipped to take the risk of including a blind person on their expeditions.
‘It took me seven years to find an instructor who would agree to let me paraglide,’ he remembers. In 2014, Ganatra became India’s first blind pilot to paraglide independently and decided that the thrill and sense of achievement he experienced should not remain exclusive to him. ‘It’s a crime to be sitting in a position of privilege and not do anything about it,’ he says. That was when the idea of having an inclusive adventure sports organization was born.
For ABBF’s first trek to Tikona, a hill-fort near Pune in western India, 125 blind people and 50 others signed up. It was the first trek for most participants, who called it a ‘life-changing opportunity’.
Embarking on an inclusive journey offers non-disabled participants a glimpse into the life of, say, an amputee, a blind person or a wheelchair user – people they never expected to find on an adventure sports expedition. ‘When they come together for play, the awkwardness that transpires because of each other’s differences disappears,’ says Ganatra.
‘The first stereotype that’s broken is about their abilities,’ he says. The able-bodied begin to see people with disabilities as equals who just do things differently.
And it is not just the non-disabled participants who come back surprised. People with disabilities, who rarely get a chance even to travel due to the inaccessible infrastructure in India, often say that they never believed they could scuba-dive, climb mountains or do high-altitude tandem cycling on hilly terrain.
No-one with a disability who wants do adventure sports with ABBF is ever turned away. Funds are raised to accommodate everyone. ‘Disability and poverty are deeply linked in our country, and we often get customers who are unable to pay for their trip,’ Ganatra reveals.
Ganatra says that their trips have been popular and successful because ABBF understands the needs of each person before they sign up. ‘We don’t aim to chase records, but let participants push their boundaries,’ he says. ‘And then they beautifully translate the same mental strength they build during their trips into other aspects of their life.’
‘That is why I don’t want ABBF to be branded as an adventure sports company,’ Ganatra asserts. ‘As long as we’re creating a community of empathy, facilitating conversations around inclusion and accessibility, and showing that disability lies in external structures and not stigma or stereotype, our mission is accomplished.’
Priti Salian is a Bangalore-based journalist who has written on social justice, healthcare and education among other things. Her work has appeared in the BBC, National Geographic, The Guardian, and many others.