“When you hear the word ‘disabled,’ people immediately think about people who can’t walk or talk or do everything that people take for granted. Now, I take nothing for granted. But I find the real disability is people who can’t find joy in life and are bitter.” -Teri Garr
Paralysed waist down since 2006, Virali Modi – motivational speaker and disability right activist from India – is determined to make society listen to the voice of the disabled. Today we listen to her voice.
Tell us about yourself:
My name is Virali Modi, I’m 27 years old. I was born in Mumbai and when I was 2 months old, I shifted to The United States of America. I was raised in a small town called Pottsville, Pennsylvania. I don’t have any siblings, I’m an only child. My mother, Pallavi Modi, is a housewife. My father, Jitesh Modi, is a business developer on a consultancy basis for a franchise called Choice International Hotels. We’ve lived in 42 states in the US because he has a traveling job. I was an excellent student, I always got straight A’s in school. I was a competitive swimmer, excellent at writing from a young age, I played basketball, soccer, and tennis in school. I was also in the choir and I played the guitar, flute, and piano. My parents and I always had a good relationship from the start, they’re really open-minded as compared to most of Indian-Gujarati parents. I was really into music from the start. I had two career options in mind from the start, I wanted to be a heart surgeon and an actress. I remember watching Discovery Health and biting into pizza, because blood or surgeries never phased me. I read a lot about medicine because all of our family friends were doctors. I would steal their medical books and read them with excitement because I knew for sure that was what I wanted to do when I grew up. I also studied modelling and acting from Brabizon Modeling and Acting school at the age of 13/14. I was/am a huge animal lover and I would always raise my voice for those that don’t have a voice, whether it be animals or people that don’t have a voice. I’d like to say that I was always an activist from the start, not just now
Due to an undiagnosed case of Malaria, Virali slipped into a 23-day coma. When she came out of it she was paralysed waist down. She retells her traumatic experience in this quora answer.
What difficulties did you face while adjusting to life in a wheelchair?
I think the biggest difficulty I faced was being accepted by my peers and my extended family. They thought I was burden on them and they said it to my face. That hurt me tremendously. I became depressed and I tried committing suicide twice for that reason. My parents were the biggest supporters and they helped me out of my depression. My mom told me that I need to understand that if I don’t love and respect myself, I can’t expect other people to do the same. She told me that I needed to learn to love myself, and the day that I do that, I’ll find solace in solitude. I was only 15 years old at that time and I took it with a grain of salt, but she was right. As soon as I started loving and respecting myself and I focused on my career, people started wanting to be friends with me and my extended family is now understanding of my situation.
I think the second biggest difficulty was learning to adapt and changing my daily activities to better suit my physical condition. Now that I have learned tricks and hacks, life has become so much easier and I want to say that I’ve become independent as much as possible.
How can people be more sensitive towards the differently abled?
Firstly, I’d like to say that people need to stop categorizing those with disabilities. Stop calling us disabled, differently-abled, handicapped, and other terms. We’re normal people that’s about it. Our parents have given us a name and I think people need to overlook the disability and start calling us by the names which our parents have allotted us. I think that’s the biggest thing someone can do to be more sensitive towards people with disabilities. If you still want to use a name or a term to stereotype us, ask the person with the disability about the term they’d like to be called. For me, it’s all about acknowledging the elephant in the room. Although I may be capable and able, but I’d still like to be called disabled than the plethora of names that society has given us.
Secondly and most importantly, just treat us like you’d like to be treated. If you like being treated with respect, then treat us the same. Don’t be scared to approach us and talk to us, we’re normal people, and I promise we don’t bite – well, at least I don’t. (haha). The only way you can become sensitized is if you have a conversation with someone that is disabled, that’s when you’ll understand that we’re not all that different. We are normal. Everyone has a disability, yours may be invisible, but just because mine is visible, does not mean that you can stereotype me. It’s as simple as that. Just get to know us, and I promise you’ll understand how similar we are.
At any point in your life did you consider yourself a failure?
When I became a wheelchair user, I considered myself a failure because I didn’t know what to do with my life anymore. After becoming disabled, I had no idea what I was supposed to do. I finally found my way when I started writing about my experiences online and started talking about my disability. When I realized that I could inspire and motivate people with my life and my experiences, I found my way.
Virali has been Quora Top Writer 5 times.
What was the biggest challenge that you overcame adjusting to your new life?
I shifted to Mumbai in 2008 after my disability. I think the biggest challenge that I overcame was the stigma in India regarding disability. Disability is still viewed as taboo in India. The infrastructure is not wheelchair friendly, and finding hacks around it, was probably the biggest adjustment. The mentality is still poor, albeit a little better now than compared to 2008, but the things people say when they see me in a wheelchair is appalling. People say, “You’re too pretty to be on a wheelchair.” Why? Do only ugly people become wheelchair bound? The mentality and the accessibility was the biggest thing that I had to adjust to. Since I’ve refused to adjust to the mentality, I’m on a mission to spread awareness about disability. I want people to know that it’s not as bad as it seems.
To date, what has been your biggest achievement?
I’ve won over 10 awards for my activism. I was named as one of the most influential and inspirational women of 2017 by BBC 100 Women. I was Miss Wheelchair India runner up in 2014. Besides all of that, I think my biggest achievement has been my campaign called #MyTrainToo which I started in 2017 for accessible Indian Railways.
Virali’s change.org petition to make railway stations and trains more disabled-friendly received 231,414 supporters before it closed.
From your experience, what’s the best advice you can give to a newly disabled person?
I always give the advice that my mom gave me when I became disabled. “Love yourself, respect yourself, because you are the most important person in this world. Everyone else comes second. If you don’t respect and love yourself, don’t expect other people to do the same.
How did you become so resilient? Were you always this way or did you have to learn to be like this?
In a way, I was always resilient, determined, and persistent, but I guess it took me many, many years to learn about my full potential. Honestly, I still don’t think I’ve learned enough, and I definitely have more to learn and many more challenges to overcome.
Tell us about what you’re doing now.
Currently, I work for a corporate called Enable Travel . We are India’s Premier Accessible Holiday Specialist. We curate accessible tours and travels for people with disabilities and senior citizens. I’m their Youth Expert. Along with that, in association with Enable Travel, we have a campaign called #RampMyRestaurant . We’re asking restaurants PAN India to ramp up because it’s mandatory by the government as well.
Apart from that, I’m a motivational speaker, a writer, a disability rights activist, a model, and an aspiring actress. I’m trying to break into Bollywood as the first disabled actress. It’s not going as smoothly as I want, but I’m still trying and I won’t give up until I break the barrier.
What problem are you trying to solve? And how successful have you been so far?
I’m trying to sensitize people about disability through my motivational talks, writing, and modelling. It’s been pretty successful, but breaking into Bollywood has proved to be challenging. I’m not giving up hope though, I’m determined to do it.
We wish Virali all the success for her future endeavours.
If you know someone who you think needs to be featured in our In Conversation series, please send an email to email@example.com