27 October 2016Last updated

Features | The big story

In the UAE: Campaigning for change

Shobika Kalra refused to let a crippling medical condition confine her. Now, with her sister Ruchika and other volunteers of their social initiative Wings of Angelz, she’s making the world a more wheelchair-friendly place, Shiva Kumar Thekkepat reports

Shiva Kumar Thekkepat
14 Oct 2016 | 12:00 am
  • Source:Supplied Image 1 of 3
  • The group is helping the disabled access all areas, working with everyone from the RTA to Emirates NBD and Emaar, and even Uber.

    Source:Supplied Image 2 of 3
  • The sisters hold Ramp Day twice a year, where volunteers walk around the city finding spots that they can turn into accessible destinations.

    Source:Supplied Image 3 of 3

Three years ago, when Dubai-based Ruchika Kalra and her younger sister Shobika wanted to see a movie while on holiday in the northern Indian city of Bhopal, they didn’t think twice before hailing a cab and heading off to the local cinema. But the first hurdle to enjoying the movie arrived there – the cinema didn’t have a ramp for wheelchair-bound patrons like Shobika.

However, the now 26-year-old woman wouldn’t give up. She was keen to see the movie – a Bollywood blockbuster – and requested four men to carry her to her seat. The same process had to be repeated when the movie was over.

‘Indeed, I was very upset,’ says Shobika, a behavioural research analyst. ‘I wasn’t a kid and felt extremely uncomfortable to be carried into the theatre by men.’

Hopeful that others should not suffer a similar fate, the Kalra sisters decided to request the manager of the cinema to install a ramp for wheelchair-bound movie lovers.

He wasn’t very helpful – and that just cemented their determination.

‘Cinemas as a rule are not wheelchair-friendly, and the one we went to particularly so as we had to take five flights of stairs to reach the lowest level,’ says Ruchika, 29, a regional manager with Red Bull. ‘The manager was very rude and uninterested. He said there aren’t many people on wheelchairs coming to the cinema and so it didn’t matter.

‘I was very angry and shouted at him. But later I realised it wasn’t his fault. Wheelchair-bound people tend to not go out much – which should not be the case. They’d be more fulfilled if they could participate [in society] like able-bodied people.’

The sisters didn’t know it at the time, but the seeds of a social initiative that’d grow into the disability awareness group Wings of Angelz was being sown in their minds.

Shobika wasn’t always wheelchair-bound.

‘Until the age of 13, she had been the superstar of the family,’ says Ruchika. ‘She excelled in both academics and extracurricular activities. She’d always come first in everything she did. She would come home crying if she got even a 9.5 out of 10! I was always in her shadow.’

But a year before her 13th birthday, Shobika started exhibiting signs of an illness. ‘She’d walk zigzag across the corridors in our house, falling down more often, losing balance,’ says Ruchika. Their parents – father Navin and mother Alka, who run Eduscan, an educational institution that operates in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah – suspected a problem. Alka, who’s a noted psychiatrist, felt it could be something serious and decided to consult a specialist.

A series of tests conducted a few months after she turned 13 revealed that she was afflicted with a rare degenerative disorder called Friedreich’s ataxia (FA), which damages the nerves, muscles and heart.

FA affects people in different ways. In Shobika’s case, it progressively weakened her arms and legs so that she had to cling to someone or something for support.

For the next four years, she could still walk, but with great difficulty. ‘It was very tough for her as well as us to accept that life was going to change so drastically,’ says Ruchika. ‘She was not ready to get on to the wheelchair, and for more than two years she locked herself up in her room, refusing to meet guests or interact with anyone.’

The turnaround came very slowly, but with time Shobika accepted this was how it was going to be. That was also when she first accepted she needed the wheelchair.

‘I understood I was not made ordinary because I was meant to achieve the extraordinary,’ says Shobika, a shy smile playing on her face. With that, she enrolled for a bachelor’s degree in business administration at the American University in Dubai in 2010.

And in 2013, when she was doing her master’s in psychology, the incident that was to change the sisters’ life occurred at the cinema in India. Back in Dubai, with the humiliating experience still fresh in their minds, the sisters pondered over the issue and came up with the idea of setting up a social initiative that would create awareness about challenges wheelchair-bound people face, and also work on projects to make the city’s buildings wheelchair-friendly.

In 2014, they launched Wings of Angelz.

Friends and family gladly offered to help, and the project got off the ground. ‘We were a group of like-minded people with no funds, so we used social media to get our work done,’ says Shobika. ‘Whenever we found a place that was not wheelchair-friendly we would go on to their social media pages and present our case, and try to get redressal. We thought they’d heed the message and take action. But it was not as simple as that. Nothing like that happened.’

They then decided to identify places that were not disability-friendly and follow up with the management individually. Soon, things started progressing, and the number of volunteers too increased beyond their friends’ circle.

Shobika is the prime mover in this initiative, more so since she goes around Dubai in a wheelchair. ‘When I come across a facility that’s not wheelchair-friendly, I take a photo of the surroundings, hunt down the manager, show him the photo and tell him my problem. Most of them agree to do something about it, but it’s not their priority. It will most probably be forgotten. So I’ll keep following up until it’s done. Then we present them with a certificate from Wings of Angelz for becoming wheelchair-friendly.’ Ruchika says the group now identify places and ‘educate the owners about the problem we face. We also offer to put them in touch with ramp manufacturers and suppliers.’

The group has also spread its wings beyond Dubai to Abu Dhabi, and even to the Indian cities of New Delhi and Bengaluru, with the help of their friends and social media. There are around 130 volunteers, called Wingeers, in these cities.

Since 2014 the group has helped initiate more than 350 ramps in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, New Delhi and Benguluru, with a majority of them in Dubai. ‘We’ve worked with various organisations such as the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA), Emirates NBD, and Zomato, the restaurant search and delivery service, among many others,’ says Ruchika. ‘One of our big achievements was when Zomato agreed to introduce a “wheelchair-accessible” icon on its website so that restaurants would be motivated to turn wheelchair-friendly quicker.’

The Dubai Metro stations are now fully wheelchair-friendly, and it is largely thanks to Shobika, who used the metro to go to university every day. ‘It was fine within the stations as they are wheelchair-accessible,’ she says. ‘But to get to the station was very difficult.’ Shobika approached the RTA about it, and they were very accommodating.

‘She likes to be independent, the footpath was ruining it, so she decided to do it herself,’ says Ruchika proudly. ‘The authorities were very supportive and told her to come to them if she had any other issues.’

So Shobika took the metro from the UAE Exchange station to Rashidiya and identified all the footpaths that were not accessible by wheelchair. She identified about 85 spots, which the RTA then very quickly made accessible by wheelchair. Now all metro stations are accessible by wheelchair from outside.

‘We’re tying up with Uber to do a training programme for their drivers on helping passengers in wheelchairs,’ says Ruchika.

Wings of Angelz holds a ‘ramp day’ twice a year where the sisters, along with volunteers, walk around the city and identify places that don’t have ramps, speak to the managers and convince them to build one. ‘We get their names and numbers and fill it in our database. We have a long list of such places – over 500 – within the four cities we operate in. Each volunteer is given one or two projects to work on. It is easy to get a commitment, but difficult to get the job done – either due to disinterest or some genuine problem in execution. The job of the volunteer is to call them every week and see if there are any impediments.’

Okku restaurant at H Hotel and Dubai Marina Beach Resort and Spa are some of the places the group has persuaded to put up ramps. ‘One of our Wingeers, Himshikha Singh, contacted Emaar to build ramps in their buildings and they have given a commitment to do so,’ says Shobika.

The sisters are now looking for people who will take the idea to other cities worldwide. ‘It is an easily replicable project,’ says Ruchika. ‘We recently had a person from Ajman who was interested.’

Shobika is sure they can change the city, one ramp at a time. ‘I will keep at it until that is so,’ she smiles.

You can contact Wings of Angelz on Facebook: The next Ramp Day is on November 11, at Zabeel Park Gate No. 3, Dubai. Volunteers are welcome.

Shiva Kumar Thekkepat

Shiva Kumar Thekkepat

Features Writer