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Sharon Lobo

IWB Blogger

Activist Virali Modi On How The Insensitive Attitude Of The People Isolates The Disabled

  • IWB Post
  •  July 16, 2019

Her voice radiated the energy of a passionate human being striving to bring about a change. She didn’t hesitate at all while narrating the incident of her molestation and all I could think was how courageous this girl is. It is such a pleasure to write about her and share this interview.

A social influencer with about 100k followers, she is the face of a movement that started for making transport disabled-friendly. It is said that a person can move mountains with sheer willingness and a strong determination.

Virali Modi proved this when she started a petition on change.org and got the railway ministry to make the transport system disabled-friendly. Her undying spirit and her motivation have helped many others like her. In this interview, she discusses the challenges that she faced and tells us about the need to sensitize people in India about disability. Excerpts:

What inspired you to start the petition and did you expect such an overwhelming response to it?

The accessible India campaign was launched in 2015, and the disability bill was passed in 2016 which lay the seeds for my motivation. Tejas Express, a new direct train which goes from Mumbai to Pune, had services for people with hearing and visual impairments. Though this was a fantastic initiative, I noticed that there weren’t enough facilities for physically disabled-people. Hence, I decided to take action for it.

Initially, I wrote to the cabinet of railway ministry and a letter to PMO. I didn’t receive any response on the same and decided to go via the traditional method, i.e., filing a complaint with the railway’s complaint redressal department, but they closed my case saying that the complaint is being forwarded to external affairs minister. When I didn’t receive any response from any of the government bodies, I decided to speak up about it on online platforms. I hadn’t expected such an overwhelming response to my petition on change.org, and I am really quite surprised by the massive support from the online community.

Tell us about the ones that supported you offline. 

A railway official who works with the southern railways has supported me throughout the petition. He encouraged me to stay positive about this and to have patience while the support was coming from all around the country.

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How do you think the power of digital media must be harnessed to bring about change?   

I think the power of digital media is invincible. It’s really a good idea, and you must speak about the issues that concern you on social media platforms. You just have to put a word out there, and it reaches the whole world within a fraction of a second. I think we must use it wisely to harness its power as it possesses great potential to bring about social changes.

Have you faced any incidences where you have been discriminated against for your disability or for being a woman?

Yes, there have been incidences when I faced gender-based discrimination. In fact, when I started my petition many supported me, but there were also people who wrote to me saying why are you doing all this and there’s no need to speak up about it and condemned it because in spite of being a woman I was so forthcoming about this issue. Talking about incidents, that I faced because of my disability, I think I have spoken about my molestation on change.org.

If you have no issues, could you tell us elaborately about the molestation incident?

I was traveling from Bombay to Delhi by train with my mom. When we reached the platform, there was absolutely no way for me to enter the train. My mom asked some porters over there if they could lift me up and take me to the berth. Those guys started scanning me as if I am a piece of meat and after discussing how they’d carry me, they lifted me like an object. One guy lifted me from my armpits and the other from below the knees. One guy went and sat on the berth, and I was placed on his lap. The guy wrapped his hands around my chest and started feeling me up. The worst part is this has happened to me on three other occasions as well. I could not stop it because I was scared that they’ll drop me. My mom was standing outside and she didn’t know either.

What was your mom’s reaction when you told her?

I didn’t tell her for a very long time. When I told her she was flabbergasted and asked why didn’t I tell her for so long? I didn’t want us to be slut-shamed for not taking along a guy with us. You know how people just start to blame you as a woman every time something bad happens, even if you’re the victim. Honestly, initially even my parents didn’t support me when I started the petition, but eventually, they knew that there’s no other way to get out of this and we need to take actions if we want the change to happen.

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Do you think people in India are less sensitive compared to people in other parts of the world?

Definitely! I have been to the US, Canada, Switzerland, and many other places. People are very supportive and sensitive to disabled people, and they’re willing to help everywhere. I have stayed in the US, and the amenities for handicapped people are phenomenal there, and even people are quite sensitive. I went to Africa two years ago, and people there were so helpful, they were willing to help me whenever I needed, and the most important factor is they didn’t treat me like a burden while doing so, they helped me as if they would help any person with any normal activity.

In India, people are not at all sensitive to the needs of disabled people, and there are many factors to blame here. The first being the portrayal of disabled people in media. Indian movies never show a disabled person playing a perfectly normal character making it seem like being disabled is a taboo. Also to create sensitivity, schools and parents need to talk about this to children from a very young age. I have noticed that disabled children are made fun of by other children, and teachers don’t even say anything. This kind of behavior must be condemned from a very young age. My nephew who is autistic does not have many friends in class, and other kids make fun of him because he can’t speak well. There’s a dire need to create sensitivity regarding all forms of disability.

There’s also no conversation happening around the sexuality of disabled people.

Honestly, I have never been discriminated against by guys because of my disability and have always got attention from the opposite gender as any other girl without a disability might get. The confusion exists because there’s no conversation happening. There needs to be a dialogue about how we explore and express our sexuality. I have never faced prejudice, but I don’t know how it is for others.

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What are the challenges that disabled people face on a daily basis and how can we as responsible citizens help them?

There are many obstacles that disabled people face on a daily basis. Like for example, when I go out, from opening the lift doors to crossing the road and getting on the pavement or footpath I need help because our infrastructure is not disabled-friendly. People need to lend a helping hand themselves instead of waiting for others to come and help us. I have had to wait for 20 minutes in a mall just to get in the lift because people weren’t sensitive enough to let me in. The mentality is also a daily difficulty that I face.

When I get off from the wheelchair and keep it in the carrier of my car, people have stood and stared at it as if it’s some alien thing. Some people ask stupid questions like why you are in a wheelchair, you are so pretty, making it seem like disabled people are supposed to be ugly. It’d be great if people can help and treat us like ordinary human beings.

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Talking about your life, tell us how you got interested in writing. 

I think this goes back to when I was in 9th grade. I wrote an essay for a class project, and my teacher called me later and said, you have a way with words, and you must explore this art. I was puzzled because I thought that my essay was excellent because I had researched about the topic very well. But my teacher was sure that I can articulate words to move somebody. I give her all the credit for me being a good writer.

How do you make time to pursue your other hobbies, considering that you are very busy with all the activities that you do?

Honestly, I don’t get time at all to write or to pursue any other activities. But I am happy with what I am doing. I am passionate about traveling, and I work with Enable Travel which curates travel packages for senior citizens and disabled people. Hence, I get to travel a lot and get to do a lot of social work. We have also been working to bring the petition called #RampMyRestaurant where restaurants can build ramps and make their place disabled-friendly. I have been very fortunate that I can do the work that I am passionate about.

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What is one message that you would like to give to everyone who is facing some sort of challenges in their life?

Never give up, no matter what. Just keep pushing yourself and never settle for anything less than you deserve.

This article was first published on January 27, 2018.

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