Behind the scenes, the stories are generally magnificent, meticulous, and full of wonders, but how often do we show gratitude for the hardships we face and the trials that have shaped us into fearless beings? Bidisha Barik speaks with Virali Modi, a 30-year-old woman who, while pursuing her ambition of being a model, has bravely raised her voice to ensure that people with disabilities have equal rights.
Virali Modi is a 30-year-old Mumbai resident who is a wheelchair-using model. She has revolutionised the way society views disabled people. Virali is a disability rights activist, motivational speaker, and model who was named one of the most influential and inspirational women in the BBC 100 Women 2017 list. “Thanks to Shahrukh Khan in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai,” Virali says she has “always had a propensity to hit the flash and glam world of Bollywood.” Her childhood saw her donning all the hats in academics, practising diverse forms of dancing and earning honours in writing until the age of 14. However, when her physical condition worsened in her early teens, life felt unjust to this adrenaline junkie. As a 15-year-old, she was proclaimed dead three times during her 23-day coma, and when she unexpectedly awoke on her fifteenth birthday, September 29, 2006, she discovered her body completely paralysed from the neck down.
She struggled from depression at the age of sixteen, and owing to a lack of emotional support from friends and family, she attempted suicide twice. But sometimes, all we need is one push in the right direction to keep us on track. For Virali, it was her mother’s tough love that taught her the value of acceptance and gratitude.
We can get ourselves into the worst of situations in life, but finding a way to make something positive out of them is the real power. Virali’s dream of becoming a model saw her working as a wheelchair-using model alongside Salman Khan for Being Human in 2019 and she has since then worked with a variety of organisations. “I crack a lot of disability jokes,” the sass queen continues, “and I just want people to be comfortable with disability because I am happy with mine.” Speaking on her recent achievements, she says, “From being stage frightened to courageously be an inspiration for many, I’ve chosen growth,” revealing how her work with Katrina Kaif’s beauty venture helped her portray her quirky personality on camera.
An experience on a train journey brought new changes into her life. In 2008, she was assaulted by porters who were assisting her in reaching her seat, and in 2011 and 2013, she was abused twice more by porters meant to assist her to her seat. This prompted the courageous woman to speak up on behalf of handicapped people who face similar situations, and the #MyTrainCampaign was born. “When the disability rights bill was passed at the end of 2016, I wrote an open letter to the government but received no response. So, I started the #MyTrainToo Campaign for accessibility in Indian Railways, which currently has over 6 lakh signatures. With the help of Kerala railway officials, we made 9 stations completely wheelchair accessible without any renovations,” adds the campaigner for disabled people’s rights.
Because society has categorised individuals with physical impairments on their own terms, Virali’s idea is to “acknowledge the elephant in the room,” explaining how everyone interacts with disability and that just because their problems aren’t apparent doesn’t mean they’re free to be labelled. “I go to restaurants and tell them how inaccessible I am so they can see that we have the same problems as everyone else. Our wheelchair does not limit us,” Virali explains.
What lies ahead of this tiara-wielding queen? “I want to transform the world of scuba diving, making it accessible for individuals with impairments, go hard or go die,” reveals the adrenaline junkie.
“I just want people to be comfortable with disability because I am happy with mine.”
“Our wheelchair does not limit us.”