The first time it happened, she says, she was 17. The only way for her to get into the train from the platform was to ask two porters to physically lift her from her wheelchair and into the compartment. Then, in full public view at Mumbai Central railway station, one of them groped her.
“I was like a piece of meat,” Virali Modi, now 25, tells me on the phone from Kansas City where she is undergoing routine medical treatment. “Not one of the other passengers would look me in the eye. My mother stood outside clueless about what was happening. I was too scared and shocked to say anything.”
She was 20 and 23 when she was groped again, and then again. So, she wrote an open letter on Facebook, posted a grievance on the prime minister’s website and after getting no satisfactory response, finally drafted a petition earlier this month calling on railways minister Suresh Prabhu and Prime Minister Narendra Modi to implement disabled-friendly measures in the railways—not the moon, just the basics: accessible coaches and bathrooms, curtains for privacy, and so on.
“The railways treat the disabled as a piece of luggage. This needs to stop,” she writes.
In just a week, Virali’s petition received over 95,000 signatures and a response from Maneka Gandhi, minister for women and child development. “It’s a great milestone that she’s willing to advocate on my behalf,” says Virali.
But Viral's fight does not end here. She wants to meet Prabhu and Modi to tell them what it’s like to be a woman living with disability.
Some of the problems are gender-blind. Accessibility, for instance. The Accessible India campaign launched in December 2015 aims to make only half of all government buildings accessible—by 2019. Many of modern India’s shining new edifices lack the most basic amenities like ramps and space for wheelchairs in multiplexes.
The other problem is visibility. We have 26.8 million differently abled people in India (more than Delhi’s population); 11.8 million are women. Yet, you rarely see them. “Where are the wheelchair emojis?” asks Virali.
Women, in particular, are rendered invisible despite the fact that Deepa Malik is breaking barriers as the first Indian to bring home a medal from the Paralympics.
Two separate dialogues, one on disability rights and the other on women’s rights, have seldom focused on differently abled women who are at the periphery of both movements. “We have never looked at disability from a gender lens,” says Virali, who was raised in the US but now lives in Mumbai. “Women menstruate, they need accessible toilets, they are vulnerable to sexual violence and assault. We need to talk about these things.”
Abuse is rampant and a 2002 survey found that 67% reported physical abuse; 53% said they had been sexually abused.
The discrimination doesn’t end here. At a June 2016 workshop run by the Centre for Women’s Development Studies and the All India Confederation of the Blind (reported in the Economic and Political Weekly), two visually disabled women academics spoke of how they were allotted one flat on the assumption that they would not have any family dependents, because, who on earth marries blind women?
But probably the worst discrimination women with disability face is the denial of their sexual needs—a gap that website www.sexualityanddisability.org run by NGOs Point of View and CREA are trying to dispel. “Women who are disabled are sexual beings— just like any other woman,” the website declares. Unsurprisingly, Virali, who’s been in a steady relationship for three years now, writes for it.
More than her petition, Virali is addressing the idea that a woman with disability is somehow incomplete.
The first runner-up at the Ms Wheelchair contest, 2014, she says she wants to act but casting directors seem handicapped by her wheelchair.
“You have characters on wheelchairs in Glee and Breaking Bad. I’m not asking for lead roles, but surely there is place in Indian cinema to show people with disability,” she says.
In her book, “disabled or handicapped are sociopaths, psychopaths, murderers, rapists”. Being on a wheelchair makes her a “unique person, different from the rest”. Seriously, she says, “my ability is astonishing”.
And so it is.
See Virali Modi’s petition here
Namita Bhandare is gender editor of Mint.
Her Twitter handle is @namitabhandare