Eyeway Conversations with Divyanshu Ganatra
10:00AM Oct 18, 2021
This podcast is brought to you by BarrierBreak Solutions Private Limited and Score Foundation.
Hi, my name is George Abraham and welcome to this edition of Eyeway Conversations. My guest today is Divyanshu Ganatra, who is a resident of Pune and he is known for his involvement with adventure sports and training. You know, the last time we met a couple of years ago in Delhi, you were talking about the Mumbai Marathon and that you were going to participate in it. How did you actually get started with the marathon and how many marathons have you run?
Interestingly, this is through my Foundation, Adventures Beyond Barriers Foundation. So, while I personally have very few marathons to my record, the organization through which we do this and promote marathons and promote running for persons with and without disability, we've done more than dozen marathons. And we've got the official allies with Tata Mumbai marathon to make it an inclusive marathon, to make it accessible to all people with disability and to have an equal platform. So that was the start. And we started with making the 10 kilometer marathon accessible and inclusive, and we had 125 runners with disability and 125 cxo's from fortune 500 companies running as their allies. So that was a start in 2020.
When you talk about making the marathon accessible, is it just an escort runner or an ally runner with you? Or is there anything more to it?
Oh, there's a lot more to it, so you need an escort or an ally. For one, it is to promote the marathon or to promote the event as an inclusive event, first of all, so when somebody with a disability wants to participate, do they have the opportunity to participate, many marathons do not have that option. So if I'm in a wheelchair, there is no option for me to participate in an event like that. So if I'm blind and I need an ally runner, with tether with having the medal being accessible, having the forms that need to be filled out to be accessible. There's so many small pieces that go into making an event accessible for various forms of disability, not just for blind runners. So, we look at every component of the entire event and make it inclusive and accessible.
You also have been involved with paragliding.
Now, tell me a little bit about it as to how people with disability actually do it and how did they get involved and if somebody wanted to paraglide, courtesy your foundation. How does one go about it?
So again, what we look at, really through the foundation, George, is we look at adventure sports as a tool to promote inclusion. So we do all forms of adventure sports from running, mountaineering, trekking, scuba diving, cycling to paragliding. So we'll do all forms of adventure sports and each one of them is made accessible to all forms of disability, each one of them we have instructors who are trained to handle people with disability. We look at the entire ecosystem and then we also use that tool to promote inclusion because every one of these are done as equals for people with and without disability. They all play together, get to know one another. They have the same goals and they have the same way of doing it, just that I might have some accessible adaptive equipment. So similarly for paragliding it is the same but just like everybody else, we just may use some adaptive equipment. So for example, if somebody in a wheelchair wants to go and fly, then we have specific harnesses for the wheelchair so that you are wheelchair gets tethered to the glider. I as a blind pilot use a lot of radio communication. The entire team, we train, train, train. We have a lot of hours of training behind us, before someone like me who's completely blind goes out there and flies.
You know Divyanshu, normally when a person gets involved with say, mountaineering or paragliding, or cycling, for that matter, it's normally the passion that drives and say, for example, I, as a person with disability might not have the avenues to actually pursue it.
And thefore, when I read about an organization that actually organizes and trains people in these areas, I would be kind of getting in touch with you. So how do I get in touch with you? And what are the various steps that you will put me through?
Right, George, so the very first step is, you can reach us at abbf.in ,that's our website.
And then there are various levels, various outdoor experiences that we curate, not everything is super extreme. There are smaller events, there are easier events. So we have graded events, the different difficulty levels. There are people who can just join us with absolutely no training, no background, just leisure. And there are some some that are created as high intensity for which then we get them the training that's necessary. There is lot of preparation that goes into it, we get involved in the preparation. Like just for the Tata Mumbai marathon, we had multiple practice runs that we organized for everybody, not just for the runners, though, with disability, but also for the allies with disability. So the whole event, it took six months, because we had multiple practice sessions, we had multiple briefing sessions, we had multiple sessions for the nutrition, we had multiple sessions to help them understand what to expect on the day of the event. So each one of the event, we have these protocols. if it's a fairly easy event, they can just join in the morning, we give them the instructions that they need to do it. But the very first step is just reach out to us on abbf.in. It doesn't matter if you are person with disability or you are non disabled person. But if you want to participate in any one of these sports, not just because you love the sport, but also because you see a world that's more inclusive. That's an excellent starting point.
Now, adventure sport over the years has become a very specialized area. There is a lot of professionalism also, which has kind of come in so does ABBF kind of work on these various sport in collaboration with other professionals or you have all the know how in house.
Good question. So for us, safety is paramount. There is absolutely nothing that flies, if the safety protocols are not in place, and we spend enormous amounts of money in safety protocols. So for us, that's not an option. Unfortunately, many in India do not look at safety with that seriousness. Having said that, the people we work with or whenever we engage in any activity, any outdoor adventure activity, the people involved, the professionals involved are all thorough professionals, they have at least fifteen to twenty years of experience in the sport. They have been through training either with us, either in India either abroad, have gotten themselves certified to be disability instructors. They are extremely sensitized to handling various types of disability. We have specific doctors with us on every expedition. So there is a lot of safety and professionals involved in every outdoor event that we do. So for example, just for flying we have somebody with 25 years of fighter plane experience as a chief flying instructor. All the other instructors have at least 10 plus years of flying teaching experience similar with scuba diving, similar with mountaineering, we have ever everesters who are our instructors, who are people who come on board as guides. So they're all part of the organization. They also do their own thing, but they're also part of ABBF.
There is a fair bit of investment that ABBF as an organization needs to make, to make these events and these programs actually happen. So, if somebody with the disability in India wants to participate, what is the kind of approximate cost that he will need to be prepared for?
To answers this question, one it depends on the activity, what it is. Like I said, some are fairly easy, some are pretty more like a cycling event from Manali to Khardung is a much more, it's a 11 day cycling event.
So it depends on the event, first of all. And second, we also assess the economic background of the person with disability.
If they are gainfully employed, then they have to pay the full charges, whatever everybody else pays. If they are eonomically well off, they still have no excuse. And those who are economically disadvantaged, we believe that financial disadvantage should not be a hurdle for someone to access these opportunities. So there are many whom we have not taken a single penny from. They get full scholarships. There are some who get partial scholarships. So it's a call that we take basis some screening that we do.
And I guess all these details are on your abbf.in
From event to event. Yes.
So Diyvanshu a personal question here. Now, what actually attracted or drew you to doing this adventure sport?
That's a good question, George, that that takes me back years before I went blind. Growing up, I just loved the outdoors, I found God in the outdoors. I love climbing mountain street, jumping into lakes, cycling. And I just saw myself in the outdoors until I went blind, and woke up blind at the age of 19. And when that happened, the world around me, just told me you can't climb mountains anymore. You can't do extreme adventures. You can't do this, you can't do that. And this is way back, so there were no opportunities. And even today, the mindset, the stereotype is people with disability can't do all of this. Somebody who's a quadriplegic can't do scuba dive. That's the stereotype, that's the mindset people have. So for me, initially, of course, I had other things to learn, how to stand on my feet, get my education, so all that took time, all those years went by, but the love for the outdoors never went. And slowly around 2011- 2012 is when I started getting back to the outdoors with a bunch of friends, with some professionals, started going climbing again. started doing my adventure sport, and then one of the things that I always wanted to do was to fly. So it took me seven years of consistently trying to find somebody who would teach me how to fly on my own. I never wanted to like, tandem was okay, but I wanted to actually fly by myself. And finally, after seven years, I found my instructor. And that was one moment that really changed the whole thing because everything fell into place. One that after I went blind, I realized that the biggest challenge as a person with disability was was not my disability. It was the attitudinal barriers within the society. And these attitudinal barriers, mindset, stereotypes came not because people were evil, it was simply that people didn't know. We're the largest invisible minority population in the world. With over 200 million people with disabilities staying in India alone with 1.3 billion around the world, but you don't see us around. And because you don't see us around in schools, in public spaces in movie theaters, restaurants, workspaces, there's a lot of ignorance and stereotype that gets passed on. And the handicap comes because of the way the world is constructed, not because of the medical reason of my disability. Then I went on to do my mental health and psychology and cognitive neuroscience and worked extensively over 16 years in just helping people change beliefs, then the thinking and modifying the beliefs and thinking. And when I took that first ride and I saw people's experiences, I said, hey, I can put all of this together. We can use sport, one to create opportunity for people with disability, to get to do these adventure sports which either two were not possible.Second, not just create these opportunities, but get people with and without disability to play together. Because when you play together, you discover so much about a person in an hour of play than a year of conversation.
And when you play together, you become friends, you're no longer strangers, you become thick friends, there's a friendship bond that lasts a lifetime. And you come with a certain mindset, you come with certain belief that oh, how can somebody who's blind climb this massive mountain or do rock climbing or do rappeling or somebody who is quadriplegic do scuba, and then you do it with them. Now, you you can't hold on to that belief anymore. You can't hold two opposite beliefs in your mind at the same time, one has to go. And now you experience something that's paradoxical. So the new experience, the new belief has to stay and the new belief says this is possible. This is how they do it. And they're educated, they have PhDs and MA's. And these are people from all walks of life. They're CEOs and MDs and HR's and education heads, and they go back and bring about social change, because within their sphere of influence, and that's the model for change. These CEO's go back and say, hey, why haven't we hired people with disability? Why haven't we opened our education to make it more inclusive? Architects go back and promise buildings to be made accessible, that every building they're made from here on will be accessible, because now they know why. They know for whom? And they know what a difference it can make when we create a world that's inclusive. And that's just to play. So no better way to do this.
It is about shared experience towards changing of mindsets.
Absolutely. I mean, if Nelson Mandela could unite an entire country, just through sport, that's the same model we have that we believe we can unite, make this world a better place through sport, just by helping people celebrate the differences and creating opportunities. Because for people with disability, the world has told them they can't do this. And they've somewhere believed that. They have internalized that.
You mentioned that you kind of lost your eyesight at the age of 19. and it was an overnight kind of episode. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
I got detected with glaucoma at 17, never believed the doctor because I had no symptoms. But by 19, as he predicted, I woke up blind one morning due to glaucoma. And blind as a bat, no light perception at all.
So when this overnight transformation, metamorphosis happened, what was your reaction? How did your family respond? And how did your friends respond?
Ah, so let me start with how I responded, of course, like, it was traumatic George, it was traumatic. I was hell angry. I was sad. I was depressed. It was hard. To put it midly, it was really hard for the first year or two. My family has been extremely strong and supportive. And they just were solid, real solid. I think that's where I drew my strength from. And they went on with, okay, so yeah, this has happened. Now we do what we have to do. Whatever must have been happening to them internally, I'm sure they were shattered. I'm sure it was hard on them. But they were solid. And as for my friends, they didn't know what to do with me so they left me. And I don't blame them anymore. In hindsight, it was painful. Because well, not just you've lost your sight. But your friends now don't know you. They don't know what to do with you. They don't know if you can go climb the mountain. So they make the plan and they go without you.
So in a manner of speaking you were left with a new canvas?
And how difficult was it to kind of fill in the new canvas?
Initially it was hard. But I guess one thing that I have been really persistent. I've always been very stubborn. Even growing up, I think I just put that to good use. I just channelized that in figuring out a way and problem solve and just crashing through. And I've always been independent, I've always been raised to be independent. So that really helped and they continue to do that. I moved out a year later to live independently because staying at home that was becoming harder. So I said well, if I have to learn that I have to be independent. I just have to be on my own and learn the hard way. There's no other way so I just moved out. I figured my way to earn my living. Learnt computers, did a lot of work in IT. So Yeah, over time, George, slowly started becoming nicer, beautiful, and it's the best beautiful painting that I believe I have ever done in my life. It's really beautiful now, it's really beautiful.
This meant that you had new relationships, new skills, because obviously, it's easy to say that you moved out and you strived to become independent. But what were the specific skills you think if somebody else who is probably at the threshold of starting a life with blindness at 30. What are the kinds of skills you think is a priority that he or she needs to pick up to actually become fiercely independent,
The very first thing is acceptance.
And to wear it with pride to completely imbibe it in your blood, to be proud of the white cane and to use the white cane. I see so many who don't in India, they just don't use the white and that's your ticket to freedom. That is what will liberate you, the minute you embrace the white cane, the minute you really get out there, you will fall, you will crash, you will get hurt, but doesn't matter, you got to pick yourself up and just refuse to let go of mobility, learn mobility, learn to get out there. When we were growing up, George, we didn't have internet, we didn't have an Uber at our beck and call.
We didn't have talking devices, we didn't have screen readers.
And today, if somebody is going blind, I'm like you couldn't have found a better time to go blind. Because there is no excuse you have got Google Maps, and you have got be my eyes and you got all these assistive tech now. There is just no excuse. It's the best time to be blind. So for me if somebody was born blind, there is no excuse. I mean, there is just no excuse. It's hard for the beginning but you go through those grief stages. But once you come to acceptance, you just embrace it and figure a way out. For me I'm still after so many years learning how to put paste on my toothbrush without going off the toothbrush.
So was cooking one of the things that you kind of tried to learn?
Yes, absolutely. I had to.
So what's the kind of food you cook?
So I tried but then I did the microwave style. And then I did the electric cooker style and put everything mashed together. And then then slowly I realized that one of the things George for me is when I lived alone, I hated to eat by myself. And then I hated even more to just cook for myself and I had a long day. I always was traveling, I was doing a lot of things. So the one thing I didn't really like was to cook. So that was one wild card. I told myself this is one wild card I can use. Push comes to shove, I can cook for myself, I won't go hungry. But I'm like, hey, it's alright. You figured it out. But you don't have to do it. You don't have to put yourself through everything. So I had a cook. And I learned to do my house and keep it proper. But yeah, I can. I can have a domestic help who ensures myy house is neat and clean. And I ensure that he does that. But yeah, I could afford these wild cards myself.
So when we talk about Divyanshu Ganatra or read about him or speak to somebody about him. One of the things that come up is something called the yellow brick road. Tell us a little bit about what this yellow brick road is. How did it get started, then what does it do and what are your plans?
So Yellow Brick Road is a for profit organization of mine, is a business that I run. I've been doing it since 2006. So it's been over fourteen/fifteen years now. We are into learning and development and we work with corporates and large corporates in organizational development in behavioral facilitation. My forte really are three things so I work with senior leaders in emotional intelligence. I work in achievement orientation or achievement motivation. And I work in what is known as human process labs or sensitivity training. This is some of the core work that I do, besides speaking engagements, so I work with fortune 500 companies as a speaker and largely this started because of my background in psychology in cognitive neuroscience, and in just application of cognitive neuroscience to everyday life. Most of it is jargon. But how do you make it accessible? How do you make it easy for people to understand, imbibe and stay with it? So everything in my life that really has happened, all the transformation that you see is really simply application of what research is out there already.
So is there a kind of big market for this? Or do you find it difficult to find clients?
Not really, we're a boutique firm, and most of our work comes through word of mouth, We believe in zero marketing. So we do not do any marketing anywhere. No, LinkedIn, no Facebook, no nothing. Even in this day and age, we do not use social media. We only only work through word of mouth and so far, so good we've been doing well.
So you also mentioned speaking, now, tell us a little bit about this speaking engagements that you have, where does it happen, what you talk about, and do you travel a lot in this connection?
Oh, yes, so largely, these are either motivational speaking engagements, or around inclusion and innovation leadership. These are three of the things that I get called out for a lot by businesses all around the world. I just came back from Western Europe and then I was in Dubai. I do a lot of speaking engagements here in India. But that's what really is why I travel quite a bit.
Thank you so much for spending time talking to us and wish you all the best as you go forward. And take care.
Thank you so much, George, thank you so much for having me. Thank you for your time, and wish you well too. Thank you.
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