How A Girl In A Wheelchair Is Standing Up For The Rights Of The Disabled

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How A Girl In A Wheelchair Is Standing Up For The Rights Of The Disabled

“Madam, people like you don’t come to our restaurants, so why should I make a ramp?” This is what Virali Modi had to hear when she wanted to go out with her friends.

At 15, she had spent a month in hospital battling a mysterious fever. She was declared dead three times, and when she came out of her coma, she was paralyzed from the neck down. She tried to commit suicide, but then she beat the odds, worked on her mobility, and began rebuilding her life.

 But her greatest challenge was waiting for her.

5% of India’s population is disabled. That’s equivalent to the entire population of Gujarat or Karnataka. Or all the Christians, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs and Parsis in the country put together. But why don’t we see them? Because there is almost no infrastructure to support or enable their mobility.

Virali saw the injustice and inequality in treatment meted out to people like her who cannot access trains, restaurants, music festivals, roads, public areas because of their disability.

“All this terminology – divyang, differently abled – I don’t get it! It’s a form of tokenism. We are going to refer to you in a different way to distract you from how marginalised you are,” Virali says.

She was manhandled by porters as she was trying to board a train in a wheelchair. She was left feeling frustrated by restaurant staff who refused to help her get over a few stairs to enter their restaurant. 

She didn’t get angry.

Okay. She got a little angry.

But she decided she wasn’t going to sit around and do nothing.

Virali started an online campaign #mytraintoo and a change.org petition to make the Indian Railways more accessible. She also started the #rampmyrestaurant campaign so people can report which restaurants are not accessible. She’s also making sure people with disabilities can travel the world and take advantage of every opportunity available to them. And if you love music, then you’ll love the fact that she helped the music festival Supersonic upgrade their wheelchair access. 

She’s fighting the injustices meted out to the disabled.

Bhavesh Joshi Superhero celebrates the Insaafer spirit of Virali Modi!

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On her 16th birthday Virali Modi was in a cabin in the Rocky Mountains, paralyzed from the neck down.

One year earlier, this gorgeous, feisty young girl had been picked out of hundreds to be brand ambassador for a giant soft drink company in the US. The day she had to sign the contract, she was admitted into hospital instead. A mysterious fever ended up leaving her in the ICU for over a month, in a coma. She was on a respirator, the doctors told her family to give up. But her mother knew her daughter was a fighter. On her 15th birthday, Virali woke up.

“No one told me I was paralyzed,” Virali says.

While other teens celebrate their Sweet Sixteen as a celebration of coming of age, with dancing and music, Virali found herself having to readjust her to her new circumstances. “America is very accessible – but my family had picked a cabin with stairs everywhere, by mistake,” she says and rolls her eyes, smiling. Having to be helped everywhere, the reality of her situation hit her.

Movement was just coming back to her fingers, and Virali laughs as she remembers using that first, feeble feeling to throw the tantrum she was entitled to. “Why me?! I didn’t do anything wrong! What did I do to deserve this?! I was trying to thump my fist on my thigh but it was just these very soft movements.”

When she went into a depression and attempted suicide though, Virali’s mother decided she wanted her fighter daughter back.

“She just walked up to me and handed me a knife.” Virali still finds the incident shocking and hilarious. “‘Here,’ she said, ‘go kill yourself. Do it.’ I was like what the f&%$?!?!? You’re supposed to be compassionate here!”

The teenage rebellion was still strong in this one. “I was like, well, if she’s telling me to do it, I obviously will not do what my mother says.”

Virali’s mother told her to look at the incident as a second birth. “Make it mean more,” Virali remembers her mother telling her, “be worthy of it. Don’t let this opportunity go to waste.”

Over the next few years, Virali moved back to India for further treatment and began to create a social circle from scratch on social media. “Initially I was worried about how people would perceive my disability,” she says, “but then I thought, if they can’t accept me the way I am they can f&%$ off.”

Virali met tons of people, started dating, began to socialise and then realised, whether it was the trains, restaurants or even the sidewalks – there was a problem.

Five percent of India’s population is disabled. That’s equivalent to the entire population of Gujarat or Karnataka. Or all the Christians, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs and Parsis in the country put together. But why don’t we see them? Because there is almost no infrastructure to support or enable their mobility.

“People don’t get out because roads, pavements, public transport – it’s all inaccessible. And unless you have money, you can’t afford a car adapted for your needs,” Virali explains. After the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill was passed in 2016, making it mandatory for restaurants to create ramps where structurally possible, Virali asked a restaurant owner why he didn’t have a ramp. “He said people ‘like me’ don’t come anyway so what’s the use. I told him how will people come if you don’t provide accessibility in the first place?” She rolls her big, expressive eyes dramatically.

Virali started an online campaign #mytraintoo and a change.org petition to make the Indian Railways more accessible. As the signatures began to accumulate, the campaign finally got the attention of the government. Four stations in the south – Thrissur, Ernakulam, Kochi, and Chennai – introduced portable ramps, smaller wheelchairs to fit in the aisles, and created lounges and restrooms that were wheelchair-accessible. Hyderabad and Orissa are also following suit.

As someone who loves to go out, Virali also began the #rampmyrestaurant campaign when over a span of two months, she realized, out of the 30 restaurants she visited, only five had wheelchair access ramps.

As the Youth Expert at Enable Travel, an accessible-holiday specialist organisation ‘for the disabled, by the disabled’, Virali has created all sorts of opportunities. This year, she went alone to the Supersonic music fest, after auditing and then helping them upgrade their existing wheelchair access to facilities.

A casual Google search will show you the range of her inspirational work – her motivational speaking, TedX talks, winning a beauty pageant, getting international recognition, going scuba diving…

And you’ll love all the questions about her on Quora, especially the one asking if she’s married, to which her response is typically funny and fiesty, “Geez, hell no!”

So what makes Virali a superhero?

It can be nothing more than facing your fears, she says. “I’m very scared of spiders so I held a tarantula!” she says. But did it help? “No, I’m still scared of spiders. DON’T QUOTE ME ON THAT!”

Serious for a minute, Virali says, “Life is like driving a car. Your front windscreen is bigger than your rearview mirror. You’re going to have ups and downs. You’re going to have to shift gears. You’re going to have to struggle uphill. Adapt to each situation.”

Her smile lights up the room as she says, “People get demotivated too easily. They get sad if their sandwich has mustard in it and they don’t like mustard. They complain about traffic. They fail an entrance test. Their hearts get broken. We have to find the loopholes in the bad situation and work out of it. Eat the sandwich or order another one. Work or read when stuck in traffic. Find a profession you’d love to do rather than one your parents are forcing you into. Think about how life can change in a matter of seconds.”

Nothing’s going to stop Virali. At 26, her passion for motivation and activism continues. She says she’s still going to auditions hoping to fulfill her dreams of being an actress. And this bright, beautiful young woman, still wants to change her world.

And she will. Has wheels, will fly.