Meet Virali Modi who defied all odds to become a disability champion
Virali Modi became a familiar name in 2018 after her efforts led to making Kerala’s Ernakulam the first railway station to be completely accessible for disabled people.
When life gave tough battles that could shatter anyone, 15-year-old Virali Modi didn’t lose hope. Her response to being paralysed was to bounce back and ace in the roles of a motivational speaker, model and disability rights activist.
The year was 2006 when Virali began developing abnormally high temperatures after returning to the United States, where she used to live with her parents. She had been on a brief trip to India.
Multiple hospital visits resulted in no diagnosis, and medications only suppressed the symptoms.
However, things quickly deteriorated. The doctors' resolve may have been weakened by the inconclusive diagnosis, prompting them to remove her from the ventilator.
Virali was paralysed from the neck down at first, but with time and numerous therapy sessions, she was able to regain upper-body mobility.
She became depressed as a result of her isolation from family, friends, and society at large.
Owning her life
It was not easy for Virali to accept her fate but she made peace with it by accepting and loving her and she advises the same to all.
“You're more important than anyone else. Start focusing on you and you'll be much happier than you were when you were trying to please society. But I believe that learning to see ourselves as human is the first step toward not allowing disability to define us and, ultimately, not allowing others to define us by our disability,” she says.
In the last 10 years, she gained more self-confidence and won second place in The Miss Wheelchair India pageant in 2014.
She began writing her life experiences on Quora—through which she earned a lot of followers.
“I became a motivational speaker and have been graced by standing ovations since then. I started pursuing modeling and acting, although I'm still waiting for my big break. Lastly, I've started to bring awareness about disability through my writing, because there isn't much awareness in India, unfortunately,” she said.
Virali shifted to India with her mother in 2008 to undergo Ayurvedic treatment for her neurological issues. Little did she know that this would start a new chapter in her life.
During her days in India, she realised that the infrastructure is not friendly for people with disabilities.
As a wheelchair-bound woman in India, it was difficult to do something as simple as taking a train. After being groped and molested by porters while boarding a train and facing other difficulties while on board, Virali decided to do something to make rail transport more accessible.
That is when she started filing a petition on change.org #MyTrainToo- to make the Indian Railways disabled-friendly.
Though Virali's letter went viral and she followed it up by filing complaints addressed to the PMO and Railway Ministry, she didn't receive any response from either of them.
However, all her struggles appeared to be worth it when her story caught the eye of a railway official from Kerala.
This was followed by Kerala’s Ernakulam, Kochi and Thrissur stations introducing disabled-friendly infrastructure in 2018.
It did not stop there, Chennai, Hyderabad and many others joined the wagon and revamped their railway stations.
“A permanent ramp has been built in the station for wheelchairs. The porters who carry luggage at the railway station have also been trained to help specially-abled people. The authorities had made the lounges and washrooms wheelchair-accessible. They had also added portable ramps and small aisle-sized wheelchairs,” said Virali.
Long way ahead
Despite acknowledging the small changes that are occurring in pockets, Virali believes that disability activism in India still has a long way to go. "Disability has very little visibility and awareness,” she observes.
She has spent the last few years advocating for the accessibility of public spaces. Recently Virali was barred entry to a restaurant because she was wheelchair-bound. This incident led to her filing a petition to make restaurants disabled-friendly. The petition currently has 1.5 lakh supporters.
(This article was updated to correct style)
Edited by Affirunisa Kankudti