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Wheels for the differently-abled

What happens when a loved one suddenly needs wheelchair support after an accident, injury or illness? Access 4All is the answer

“Way back in 1988, I was driving my car when I met with an accident. I was paralysed neck down and became a quadriplegic. I went to the US for rehabilitation and then returned to India. It was then that I realised the lack of facilities for the disabled in India because we don’t consider them a part of the mainstream, whether for education, work or entertainment. For instance, if they want to go to a mall, school or station, travel is difficult since sufficient disabled-friendly services are not available,” says Arvind Prabhoo, the man who went on to set up Access 4All, a unique and much-needed service that provides crucial in-city travel service for the disabled and makes them mobile.

After his return to India, Arvind kept searching for a vehicle that would make travel easier for the disabled and at a reasonable cost. He says, “The disabled don’t want to use an ambulance; it is for those who are ill. I wanted a vehicle that appears similar to others, but modified to meet the needs of the disabled.” He looked at many vehicles, especially sports utility vehicles (SUVs), but most of them were expensive.

Then, in 2007, Tata Motors in partnership with Renault launched the Winger, a multi-purpose vehicle suitable for urban transport that was easily adaptable at an affordable Rs6 lakh. And Access 4All started taking shape in Arvind Prabhoo’s mind.

He first approached an expert to modify the Winger, but was told it would cost a hefty Rs10 lakh, so he decided to modify it on his own. Arvind had no technical background; besides, he wasn’t able to do the physical work himself. But he knew what he wanted—a vehicle to suit people with different kinds of disabilities. The Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Smarak Samiti, a public trust in Vile Parle (a western suburb of Mumbai), of which Arvind is the vice-president, agreed to fund the Winger’s purchase and modification costs.

So Arvind hired a mechanic, an electrician and a person for doing up the upholstery to modify the Winger. A ramp was attached to the vehicle for wheelchair access; also installed were a GPS (global positioning system) with LED (light-emitting diode) displays for the hearing impaired and a speaker-sound system to let the visually impaired know where they are. According to Arvind, building an iron ramp that was easy to pull out and which folds on the underside of the car, was the most time-consuming modification. The ramp locks into place once it is pulled out to allow a wheelchair to be safely pushed over it.

The original seating was completely modified to fit three wheelchairs and three regular seats that can fold up against the sides when not in use. Arvind’s own disability gave him key insights into the design. For instance, he says wheelchair passengers should be seated against the direction of movement.

He explains, “A paralysed person like myself is pushed forward every time a driver hits the brakes suddenly and it’s painful on the neck. But when I am facing the rear, I get pulled backwards and the headrest cushions the impact.”

It took Arvind seven months to design the vehicle and the modification cost was as much as the cost of a brand new Winger. In 2008, Arvind was set to start Access 4All as a wheelchair accessibility van service with trained staff, providing transport to disabled people all over Mumbai. With two vehicles and a team of 10, Access 4All rents these specially-modified vehicles and has tie-ups with major hotels for pick up and drop facilities to various locations.

The vehicle can be hired for the entire day (Rs1,600 per day for 80km) or for shorter runs. “Access 4All seeks to provide services to disabled people; not to make profit,” adds Arvind. He wants to take this service to other cities as well, but will need all the help he can get to get more vehicles and modify them.

Dr Ketna Mehta, founder, Nina Foundation, says, “We are extremely satisfied with the accessible services provided by Access 4 All. It is very important to travel with dignity and confidence. With the wheelchair moving up on the ramp without our members with disability having to transfer it reduces the fatigue as well as issues of bruises and cuts. The staff is also well-trained to carry the disable people down the stairs in an event if he/she is on the higher floors without elevator. The opportunities to socialise increases with such services.”

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