Disability Heroes - Virali Modi is open & proud about her disability
In our series Disability Heroes, we profile the fiery and articulate Virali Modi, who has emerged as a vocal figure Be it lack of accessibility in public transport or restaurants, Viral has a strong point of view and does not hesitate to voice it.
Whether it is speaking out against mishandling by airport staff or lack of safety on trains, Virali Modi pulls no punches. Nothing fazes this 27-year-old, who was paralyzed from the waist down after complications from a bout of malaria. Not the apathy of authorities or even being slut-shamed for going public about being molested by porters while boarding a train.
Virali is open and verbal about her disability, and what's more she says she is proud of it.
However, getting to this point was a hard journey. Just 17 when she found she would never walk again, Virali plunged into depression and even tried to kill herself twice. It would take her a few years to fully come out of it, and she did so with a bang.
In 2012 I started writing in Quora openly about my disability, with the aim to break the taboos around disability. I have never been a person to give myself different terms or synonyms. I have always called myself disabled, not differently-abled. I believe in recognizing myself as someone with a disability, and that it is something that affects my outer body and never my inner self. - Virali Modi, Disability rights advocate
It is here that her activism began. Her writings in Quora have attracted her a follower base of over 130,000 so far. The empathy and support encouraged her to go public about the molestation she suffered while boarding a train in 2011. Virali started a petition on change.org, called #Indian Railways disabled-friendly. It was addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and then Union Railways Minister Suresh Prabhu. #MyTrainToo attracted over two lakh signatures.
"The trigger was an announcement Prabhu made in 2017 about the launch of the Tejas Express, where he talked about the facilities for deaf and blind people," recalls Virali. "Not a word was said about people with physical disabilities and that pissed me off. My thought was, 'If you are going to do something huge like this, you cannot segregate between disabilities.' I felt this was the perfect time to talk about what I had suffered - I could not think about log kya kahenge anymore."
Not only did Prabhu respond with a commitment to make stations accessible, Chennai, Kochi, Ernakulam and Thrissur stations introduced disabled-friendly infrastructure like electronic buggy services, accessible washrooms, ramps. It spurred a similar initiative in Odisha and Hyderabad as well. Another issue she has campaigned heavily for is making restaurants accessible.
Encouraging steps, but there are miles to go, says Virali. "I think the biggest problem is visibility. If more disabled people were to come forward and speak out, that would help a lot."
If there is anyone who can help inspire that coming out at this point, it is Virali, says filmmaker Rustom Irani, who is also a travel expert with Enable Travels. Virali is a Youth Ambassador for this accessible travel venture.
"Disability is getting to be a big thing and it helps to have someone like Virali who speaks that language," says Irani. "She is actively present in films and modelling, and that helps as well. She has emerged as a role model for many young girls with disabilities. She has to take up the cudgels and she is doing that. She has tremendous reach at the moment."
The other space Virali has been vocal about is also close to her heart, and that is in the entertainment industry. Virali, who came second in the 2014 Miss Wheelchair India pageant has a passion for modeling and acting and has talked about the attitudinal barriers she routinely encounters.
"I am not asking for a lead role but there are many side roles or a special appearance that can be done for someone in a wheelchair but for that the studio, washrooms have to be accessible and which production company wants to do that?" She has also challenged leading jewelry brands for not using models in wheelchairs to advertise their products. "I wrote to brands like Tanishq and Kalyan Jewelers asking them about this. Don't people in wheelchairs wear jewelry or clothes?"
Her willingness to fight the good fight and not get bogged down is her biggest strength, says Varada Gokhale, who has known her for five years.
"Her true strength lies in how she handles so many things on a personal level and still remains invested in all these campaigns. All this comes from a really strong mind."
Strong mind aside, what keeps Virali going? It is her determination to make the world aware of the potential in disabled people. "Let us come out of our shells and show the world what we are capable of. "
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