Ally stories: Adi Raheja

Ally stories: Adi Raheja

Embracing differences, embodying inclusion

It is when Adi Raheja talks of his dreams for ABBF that he truly proves he is an ABBF ally through and through. “ABBF should reach every corner of the world,” he says. “Every village, every town, every city should feel the impact of this work. At the end of it all, disability should become so normalised that people forget this perceived difference. After all, adventure is for all.”

Adi at InSync #M2K2017

The first time Adi got on a cycle was in May 2017. In August of the same year, he cycled every kilometre between Manali and Khardung La, a distance of 550 kilometres including five mountain passes, as part of InSync #M2K2017, India’s first inclusive tandem cycling expedition. His motivation was simple – to show his solidarity to the cause of inclusion and to remind his daughter that anything is possible if only you set your heart to it. In the months that followed, Adi and Palak have become regular participants at our events. “I have experienced transformation,” he explains, “and I want that for her too. I want her to be committed to inclusion for her lifetime, be strong and overcome everything that comes her way. That is why Palak joins me as an ABBF ally.”

It was his experience in the mountains that set the ball in motion though. Having grown up without much exposure to Persons with Disability, he admits to feeling a certain awkwardness in the face of disability. “When the team played national anthems from every country represented, I knew this was a truly inclusive spirit. Even if there was only one participant, that person was important, respected, and treated like a star. That value system spoke loud and clear.” Yet it was not just at the beginning that Adi felt the spirit of inclusion defining the expedition. “This emotion continued all the way till the end. As we all trudged towards Khardung La and the finish line, the way ABBF responded to every person’s needs was as if they were the ones pedalling. ‘Support’ doesn’t begin to cover it.”

Adi at #EverdayAbility in Pune

Today, Adi not only embodies the value systems ABBF stands for, he makes sure to practice them in his sphere of influence and then go the extra mile to spread the word. “We are currently hiring for my company, and I am actively on the lookout to give PwDs the opportunity to interview with us. I know I couldn’t have cycled all that way alone. Or with anyone else. ABBF and its work are so much bigger than I am, and I am here to help.”

For Adi, his time with ABBF has been one of steep learning. “On the trip, I learnt to be non-judgmental and be unabashedly myself. I learnt the true meaning of inclusion – not extra empathy or extra pity or extra anything. Persons with Disability or others who talk differently, behave differently, act differently, come from different backgrounds – we are all fundamentally human. And we all deserve equal respect. That is the inclusion ABBF taught me.”

Ambassador Stories: Shalini Saraswathi

Ambassador Stories: Shalini Saraswathi

All-round superstar.

There is little that has not been written about Shalini Saraswathi. Blade runner, aspiring Olympian, travel enthusiast, successful professional, arresting speaker, it has all been said multiple times. All you need to do is Google the name and the stories shall emerge from the crevices of cyber woodwork. But at ABBF, our adjectives are a little different. Superstar, cheerleader, rockstar. The very definition of gregarious. Friend. Ally. Ambassador.

It was on an innocent vacation to Cambodia that Shalini’s life as she knew it would change. When her natural warmth and love for pets made her pause a moment to pet stray dogs, little did she know that action would set off a domino effect in the months to come. Contracting a rare bacterial infection called Ricketssial with morts, her next few months were spent on a journey that began with a fever and spiralled through multiple organ failure, coma, a “tango with death”, the loss of all her limbs, and a two-year recovery period. At the end of it all (or perhaps it is better heralded a beginning?), Shalini was a quadruple amputee.

One would think this was the opening of a drama, a movie filled with the trials and tribulations of Life, capital L and all. Yet, with Shalini, this was the start of something new, a journey defined by its positivity and candour. Believing that disability cannot stop anyone from living Life queen-sized, she set out on her journey to redraw her lines, redefine her boundaries, and see how much she can push the limits. It was this shared passion for not toeing the “rules” that brought her to ABBF.

“My interaction with Divyanshu began with a phone call,” she recalls. “Now, it has grown into a strong friendship anchored by ABBF. I just had to be friends with someone who did not think we just had to ‘survive’ with disability, but wanted to live the whole nine yards of life.” Thus, our story with Shalini began.

Shalini’s story with disability and sport has been one of unwavering determination. In the days following her amputations, she took it one day at a time. “I focused on the things I could do,” she recalls. “Reading saved me. I learnt classical music. I wrote. My friends and family were a huge support system.” When one of her arms got auto-amputated, Shalini remembers feeling relieved. “I just knew it was a sign to move on.” And in a few months, she was ready to get back on her (new prosthetic) feet.

“Growing up, I was part of my school volleyball team, I ran track for my house in school, and am trained in Bharatnatyam while dabbling in Kathak as well as salsa. Being physically active was a part of my life. After my amputations, I just wanted to get fit again. I checked out a few gyms but none of them knew how to deal with me. That is how I found myself on the track.” This serendipitous journey began with just walking and progressed to a jog and then a run. A few months after her blades arrived, she ran a 10K marathon.

Shalini Saraswathi: All-round superstar

Over the years, Shalini has been at the frontlines of our events, cheering us on, believing in the platform of inclusive adventure, and helping us in every possible way. Whether it is spreading the message, always having a kind word to spare, helping raise funds, or being uber-generous with her own contributions, we know we can always count on Shalini.

As a blade-runner and marathoner herself, she is no stranger to the power of play! “Playing is how we bonded as children,” she explains. “If we extend that and bring PwDs and able-bodied people together, we learn that disability is just a state of mind! That is what ABBF does – gives hope and joy to PwDs and opens up everyone’s lives through the power of interaction.”

We cannot be more thrilled to count Shalini as one of the biggest cheerleaders in our corner, and we cannot wait for all the adventures yet to unfold!

If you don’t believe us on the definition of gregarious, read this. For a more in-depth interview with Shalini, read this. To check out Shalini’s blog, head here.

Understand ABBF: Minors, consent, and keeping safe

Understand ABBF: Minors, consent, and keeping safe

At ABBF, we believe in two core principles when it comes to participating in adventure.

  1. Everyone is safe. No matter what. As long as it is in our control, it shall be covered, no matter how close to the finish line we seem.
  2. Informed consent is paramount. All our participants are very aware of what they are undertaking. They know of the risks with as much clarity as they know of the adrenaline and thrill. We tell them the facts as they are.

It is to ensure that these principles are truly conformed to that ABBF has a policy of only working with individuals above 18 years of age. All participants are required to give consent and sign waivers, especially for expeditions with a higher adventure quotient to them! (Think tandem cycling in the Himalayas, ahem.) When minors are involved, this issue of informed consent becomes a little difficult.

While ABBF understands that there is nothing except the line of legality that separates 17 years and 11 months from 18 years and 1 month, this line becomes an important one in the field of adventure sports. It is important to have participants who have legal and psycho-social autonomy, independence, and rationality. By the law, this privilege is only awarded to those above a certain age. We do however make one exception.

At ABBF, we fundamentally believe adventure should be open to all. How then are you restricting it only to adults, you ask us? We allow minors on board our events on one condition – parental participation. Not consent, mind you, but participation. It is not enough for parents to sign off the form for ABBF. No. For minors to join us, we require parents to come with us – cycle, run, assist, what have you – but be present. This is how fifteen-year-old Manasvi became the first blind girl to cycle from Manali to Khardung La (her father was her captain) and fourteen-year-old Ananya (who has cerebral palsy) experienced paramotoring with her mother’s help.

The idea is simple. We are committed to keeping everyone safe. This is only possible when there are participants who can take responsibility for their own actions. If there are those who can’t, we shall wait until they can or until they have someone to do so. Adventure is for all, but adrenaline cannot be traded for safety.

Understand ABBF: Why accessible adventure?

Understand ABBF: Why adventure sport?

Every once in a while, people ask us why we chose adventure sports when there are “so many other battles” to be fought. Why not education? What about healthcare? What about accessible architecture? What of representation in places of employment? The questions are endless and ever-flowing.

Here is why we chose adventure sport out of them all.

Adventures Beyond Barriers Foundation is not an adventure sports company. We are a disability organisation that uses adventure sports as a medium, a platform, a tool. We use adventure sports as a way to promote inclusion. We believe that inclusion is the ultimate goal and that there are various methods that one can adopt to reach it. Adventure sports is ours.

Nelson Mandela once said a few lines that speak directly to our way of thinking. He said:

“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair.”

By working with sport, we are creating an equal playing field (pun intended!), bringing people together and encouraging them all, disability aside, to push their own boundaries. There is an element of adrenaline, personal limits, and defining ability that is core to adventure sports in itself. It provides the perfect platform to get to know one another when everyone is challenging themselves in some form or the other. From these conversations, we believe, change will emerge – in mindsets, in attitudes, in perspectives, in actions. We have had people volunteer as scribes and readers (education, check), had participants more committed to health, nutrition and exercise as preparation for expeditions (healthcare, check), had relationships translate to possible job offers (employment representation, check), and had commitments to universal design and accessible adventure (architecture, check). By bringing people together for an accessible adventure experience, we believe in facilitating organic, individual-driven change.

At a more macro level, ABBF believes that the right to leisure and entertainment is one that is often ignored in the discourse surrounding disability. We forget that Persons with Disability too are as invested in winding down after a hard day, enjoying their Sundays, spending time in the outdoors. And we do not believe that we need to fight these battles for access in order – first X and only then Y. We believe in working towards a world of perfect equality of opportunity, independent of disability, and this means the ability to experience the peaks of the mountains and depths of the seas just the same.

This focus on leisure, entertainment and adventure is in keeping with the universal discourse on human rights as well. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights signed in 1948 states that everyone has the right to leisure (Article 24) and community participation (Article 27). (For a full list of the rights, visit here) It is internationally accepted that “leisure is not an idle waste of time or a mere absence of, or recovery from, work but rather necessary for a life of ‘dignity’…The right to leisure has been tied by a long line of empirical studies to individuals’ overall ‘well-being’” (Richards et al, 2013)

Long story short, we choose adventure sport as a platform to promote inclusive because of three things.

  1. We believe individuals are powerful agents of change and revolution needs start from one person.
  2. To create this change, you need to feel strongly about the cause and the best way to feel something is to experience it. Experience adventure, interact with persons with disability, and you will feel strongly guaranteed.
  3. No right of access is more or less important than the other. Everyone deserves the right to a healthy body and mind, and adventure is a great platform to achieve this.

And hence, at ABBF our request is simple. Come. Play. Grow.

 

For more academic content on right to leisure, read – Richards & Carbonetti (2013), Worth what we decide: a defense of the right to leisure , The International Journal of Human Rights, 17:3 329-349