Virali Modi

Standing tall amid adversity: Virali Modi inspires us to live life queen-size

Read Virali Modi's inspirational story of bouncing back from tragedy; How this disability rights activist, model, and motivational speaker transformed the greatest adversity of her life into her strength.

It was in the year 2006 that life changed for Virali Modi, an Indian teenager living in the US. When she returned home after visiting India for a month, she developed a severe infection. What was supposedly malaria led to severe complications. Fate had something else in store for this 15-year-old, who soon after slipped into a coma that lasted 23 days. As she came out of it, she thought her ordeal was finally over until she discovered she had become paralyzed from the neck down.

Modi, with immense support from her parents, rebuilt herself and emerged stronger. A disability rights activist, a model and a motivational speaker, today Virali uses her voice for disability rights and awareness. A role model with an unshakeable resolve, hers is an inspirational story of bouncing back thriving from tragedy.

What has been your biggest learning in this inspiring journey of conquering a debilitating infection and its aftermath?

This is a very difficult question to answer because I have learned so much about myself and I continue to do so. The process of growth is never-ending. The biggest thing that I learned is that my disability does not define me. What define me are my actions – how I present myself, talk to people and the kind of relationships that I maintain.

I have realized that the wheelchair is actually incredibly empowering to me. I have always been looked down upon. People have always told me that I can’t achieve this or that due to my disability. People basically just look at me with sympathy.

But I decided to use this wheelchair to conquer life. What others think of me, does not matter. What I think about myself and who I am as a person – that’s what matters. It took a lot of time to get used to this thought process. But learning how to love and accept yourself in every single way is very important if you want to win over life.

Please tell us about your childhood and the unfortunate chain of events that changed the course of your life. 

I was born in Mumbai and only a month old when we shifted to the US. I was not always disabled so had a fairly normal childhood. And yes, disabled is the term that I prefer to use.

I was great in academics, sports, and dance, so the disability was incredibly life-changing. I was in the hospital for 23 days in a coma. I woke up to find that I couldn’t walk or move my hands. However, I was raised in a very optimistic household. The word impossible just did not exist in my dictionary. I understood that I needed to have the right perspective, the right upbringing and a healthy environment to achieve anything and everything I dreamed of.

Who has been your biggest support in this fight to get back to life after such a fierce battle? 

That would definitely have to be my parents.

My dad is an emotional person and would cry occasionally, but he was still there for me. But the one person who ensured that I was taken care of and my dad was taken care of too, was my mom.

My mom is a rock-solid person who ensured that any and all negativity was far away. She was barely getting any sleep herself but tirelessly taught me how to love myself. It was like a domino effect – my mom’s energy, optimism and encouragement rubbed off on my father and finally on me. If it wasn’t for them, I would not be who I am today.

You participated in the Miss India wheelchair pageant. What were the challenges faced? 

I hadn’t been on stage after my disability. I think the biggest challenge for me was bringing forth my confidence and self-esteem. I was truly scared, to say the least. So when the time came, I went up on the stage and hyper-focused on my mom, and it was just like talking to her rather than the whole audience.

The pageant was such a humbling experience. Soon after, when I started going to auditions for modelling assignments, it was disheartening to be told that I am pretty but the disability is a barrier. I came back wondering why couldn’t they see the talent and personality that I had? But now when I look back, I understand that those experiences were necessary as well.

Tell us about your big break post the pageant and what were the obstacles on your way to becoming a model. 

My big break happened in 2018 with Salman Khan’s Being Human. That was such an amazing experience, but I also realized how inaccessible studios and sets are for someone with a disability. Other than that, it was a great experience. It literally created a platform for me to rise high and work with different brands.

But again, the designers, stylists and production people lacked the basic awareness about disability. It was tough proving myself repeatedly, that I could be a working model with long working hours too, that I was just as capable as the next model or the actor without a disability.

There is a lot of conversation about inclusivity. In your 15-year journey, do you think we’ve been able to stand up to the promise as a society? 

We need more people with disabilities out and about in the public and in mainstream media. That is when awareness, sensitization and inclusivity will truly be there. We need way more representation in mainstream media, films, ads and on the ramp. I think we have a long way to go, but this is a start.

Today, so many people with disabilities are sharing their lives on social media. I am very proud of this community and the important content they are creating on the internet for everyone to see and understand.

What do you think requires a change – the mindset of people towards disability or the infrastructure to support the disabled?

Both. Once you have accessibility, as in when ramps are available for people with disabilities, you will see more of them out and about. We need people with disabilities to be able to do their own thing, live their lives work, party, go to music festivals, etc. When others will see them more often, that’s when the mindset will change.

But if we don’t have proper infrastructure for them, how will they be able to do so?  Consequently, then how do we hope that society will get sensitized towards people with disabilities if they see them so less?

What are the steps we can take to strengthen the infrastructure? 

Today, 9 railway stations in India are accessible to the disabled. It was only made possible by my petition and relentless pursue to bring about necessary change in public spaces. Fortunately, my request was well understood by people across; from politicians to the common man, I received great support in my work and the results are there for all to see. That said, a lot of work is yet to be done.

It is essential to use social media to spread awareness. Documented social media is so powerful. Starting petitions, talking to local restaurants and society associations about making their spaces more accessible is also a must. If you find there is a lack of facility needed for someone with a disability in a public space, start helping by talking about it.

Everyone in this world is temporarily abled. It might sound bitter but that is a fact. So one day or the other, you or anyone that you know is going to require an assistive mobility device. We can’t go out and renovate every place to be accessible. But the least we can do is raise our voices and request, or rather demand that things get steadily accessible for all.

What is the kind of  future that you envision?

Honestly, I am just trying to be me. I am engaged and getting married this year! I just want people to know that even though one has a disability, one can live and lead a very ‘normal lifestyle’.

Also, social media has played a big role in making this topic relevant among the masses. I am looking forward to working with brands, giving motivational talks and through it all, trying to change people’s mindset and improve the country’s infrastructure towards the disabled. That’s what I love and believe in.

Most importantly, I want to let people know that even with a disability, nothing can stop you. It’s only your mindset that can stop you from living life you desire.

  • A disability for life, due to high fever and severe infection, could not deter the then 15-year-old Virali from leading an independent and a meaningful life. A motivational speaker, a model, and a champion for the cause, Virali is a familiar name after her efforts made Kerala’s Ernakulam the first railway station to be completely accessible for the differently-abled. Her life motto is to raise awareness about disability.



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