For over a decade now, Virali Modi has been on a wheelchair. An accident at the age of 13 paralysed her neck down. But she didn't stop. She went on to become a motivational speaker, a disability rights activist, a writer and even won the Miss Wheelchair India pageant in 2014.
For all these years, the one thing that Virali has loved doing--is to travel. However, it hasn't been an easy ride for her. This, because the Indian railways is not designed to be wheelchair accessible. So now she's trying to get Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu's attention to fix a problem that affects a large number of people.
"I've been groped and manhandled three separate times by porters. They were helping me board the train," she told HuffPost India.
Between 2008 and 2014, Virali was groped thrice by the porters who were 'helping' her board the train.
"I didn't say anything, I was scared he would drop me," Virali said narrating the time when a porter in Bombay Central was feeling her up while helping her board the train. "I didn't have a choice. And he took advantage of my disability," she said.
In 2008, when Virali was traveling from Mumbai to Delhi on a Rajdhani she was groped by two porters. In 2011, it happened again when she was going to Gujarat from Mumbai. The same thing happened three years later.
"The Prime Minister keeps talking about 'divyang' and how he wants to change things for us. But they are not changing the basic transport system."
That's not all. The railways are so inconvenient for her that she has to wear diapers throughout her journey. "I have had to wear a diaper because I couldn't use the train bathroom. And when I needed to change that diaper, I had no privacy and had to wait for hours for the lights to go off at night," she said.
"The Prime Minister keeps talking about 'divyang' and how he wants to change things for us. But they are not changing the basic transport system," she said. "Does the government not care about us?" she asked.
Last month, before the Railway Budget, Virali wrote an open letter to PM Modi, trying to bring his notice to the the plight of the differently-abled.
In her letter, she demanded that the government "make India accessible so that other people don't have to face the embarrassment of being manhandled while countless people watch, like (she) did".
Two weeks later, she received a letter from the PMO saying the status of her grievances has been "closed" and it has been forwarded to "the External Affairs Ministry" with a reason that "this case does not pertain to the Ministry i.e. PMO".
"I wanted directly to talk to Mr. Prabhu or PM (if possible), especially in terms of transportation and the infrastructure in India, as well as society and how disability is perceived," she told India Today.
Now, Virali has started a petition on Change.org asking people to sign it if they support her.
Virali said that the Disability Rights bill/movement that has been passed is a great thing, but there needs to be a lot of changes. "Isn't it our right to use 'public' transportation?" she asked.
Nearly 60,000 people have signed the petition at the time of writing this.
Virali has a set of demands from the government.
- Accessible bathrooms with proper space inside the bathroom, clean and higher toilets, low sinks so we can easily wash our hands.
- Accessible coaches for the disabled in all trains, ideally one for each class. Enough space between berths so it is easy to fit a standard size wheelchair between the berths and we can shift onto our seats when needed.
- Curtains around the berths for when we need to change. Often, I've needed to change my clothes and the berths are too small for me to role around to change my clothes, as well as have no privacy.
- Proper infrastructure to cross railroads if needed to change platforms.
Virali is quite hopeful too. "If they have passed the bill, I am sure things will change as well," she said.
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