You walk into a coffee shop, find your sweetspot on that opulent velveteen corner chair that lets you be invisible, pick your poison on the menu and place your order. Your friend walks in, plops himself next to you, and you catch up as life continues to unfold, in and around you. But do you know how many factors you take for granted in this seemingly routine evening? Walking in, reading the menu, ordering so your server understands are luxuries unheard of for a vast section of people. Heck, so are having friends and being invisible to the world.
“In the process of understanding the differently-abled community better, we realised that many of their social lives are rather restricted,” says Shankar Srinivasan, Co-founder of Inclov, a matchmaking website that helps the differently-abled romantics find love. In 2015, Inclov launched a 100-percent accessible and inclusive app for people with any kind of disability, and even for those without. It has 5,000 users and has played Cupid rather successfully, might we add, leading to over 1,600 matches on the app.
When it struck the team that the community might actually crave for an offline experience that we might dismiss as mundane, Shankar and his co-founder Kalyani Khona ideated and initiated Social Spaces, Inclov's offline meetup property in 2015, which is making strides in conjuring up ‘happy places’ for people who are used to being constantly judged and undermined. “This is our heartful effort for all our users to come and meet in person,” says Shankar.
The meetups are inclusive in nature, and the locations they have curated and chosen are universally designed, ensuring complete accessibility.
Their pilot meetup was in Delhi in June 2015 and had about 30 attendees,both with and without disabilities. The duo has held seven meetups in various cities so far, impacting over a thousand people. “You can come and have fun, make some new friends, have some real conversations, and in the process, maybe even find your life partner!” says Shankar.
The only prerequisites for a smooth-sailing evening where the conversations as well as the conversationalists can move about freely are ensuring complete accessibility at the venues, sign language interpreters,and completely sensitised staffs.
For any space to be inclusive, they must inculcate into their décor, ramps, accessible washrooms with handles, bars, wide entries, braille signages, braille menu cards as well as sign language interpreters.
“We ensure that the latter, in fact, even interpret music, so if we have a musical performance by a band, nobody feels excluded,” says Shankar.
It was, and still is, difficult to find venues which are fully accessible, but there are more such thoughtful havens than you might imagine. So far, Hauz Khas, the Lemon Tree Hotel and Farmout Café in Gurgaon, Elliot Beach in Chennai, Prabodhan Thackeray Parkin Mumbai, Kunzum Café, House 36 and British Council in New Delhihave been kind enough to host them.
Their eighth meetup will be hosted today, October 22, by The People &Co, Cyber Hub, Gurgaon,.
“When we talk about our meetups, people generally imagine an event where we awkwardly line up men and women and try to match them. Or the typical ‘swayamvarmelas’ where everyone comes on stage to do an elevator pitch and if others are interested they can get in touch,” says Shankar. This is just the notion they’re looking to dispel. Social Spaces is, in fact, a really easy-going two-to-three-hour outing packed with performances and talks, and flowing with food and time to make friends, much like the networking mixers you may have been to.
They typically have a speed-dating slot, which is also complemented by a more leisurable slot later. The band Dhunsatva, speakers like PreetiMonga, poet Ajay Verma, and stand-up comic Chitra Kalyani are some of the many names that have graced their stage.
Catching us up on the most interesting things we have missed, Shankar reminisces about their meetup in Mumbai that was supposed to end at 7 pm, after which the guests should have headed home. “But the environment was so upbeat that even after we officially concluded the meetup, the people continued it with someone wheelchair dancing, singing, acting, and even reciting poems. At this point, even the passers-by joined in the fun,” he says. The 20-strong bunch then went to a local fast food joint and continued the fun over dinner.
And, yes,you read that correctly — the Chennai meetup was conducted at a beach! “This experience was overwhelming to so many of the people attending, because they had never sat at the beachfront without feeling uncomfortable and out of place,” he recalls.
Sameer Chaturvedi, a JNU scholar and Inclov user, says, “My life was restricted, in the sense that I would go to university and straight back home. This is a great change from that mundane life.”
Pooja Sharma, a management trainee who uses a wheelchair, says, “There is a notion that disabled people cannot find love. But these meetups are changing that, as so many like-minded and sensitised people are coming forth. It’s great!”
Their very first meetup this year had six people, but now they have to pull the shutters on their booking windows, so to say, since their venues cannot accommodate beyond 50–60 people.
Getting the word out has been surprisingly easy — all it took was one delightful evening, which did the talking and pretty much sold itself. Besides newsletters and posts on social media to notify their app users about upcoming meetups,the community, though scattered, is a rather well-knit one.“Once they come and have a good experience, they become our biggest ambassadors to spread the word. We now get invites from people in various cities for us to do Social Spaces there,” says Shankar.
50 percent of Inclov users on the app or those who attend Social Spaces are people without disability. “We do not restrict people without disability from joining Inclov. We have always aimed to provide an inclusive, accessible platform for people with disability where they stand an equal chance to find love,” says Shankar.
They had a meetup last weekend, that brought people together for the love of food! The head chef of People & Co. conducted a really cool cooking workshop where he taught them some nice, quick recipes for salads.