While it sprouts hope to see the birth of discussions on inclusivity in public spaces, to make them more accessible to the disabled, becoming a part of our public discourse, it is also disheartening to know that Indian railways have so far existed with no ramps for wheelchair users to get on a train. Only a few days ago, Thiruvananthapuram Central Railway Station became the first railway station in the country to introduce portable wheelchair ramps and foldable wheelchairs. Thanks to this crusader of the rights of the disabled, Virali Modi.
As a paraplegic, Virali, from Mumbai, started an online petition few weeks ago, sharing her moving story, which eventually got the government and the railways working on making railway stations accessible for the disabled. Through her petition, Virali says, “I have been groped and manhandled three separate times by porters. They were helping me board the train because Indian trains are not wheelchair accessible. I am a disabled woman living in Mumbai, who loves to travel. I have had to wear a diaper as I couldn’t use the train bathroom. And when I needed to change, I had no privacy and had to wait for long hours for the lights to go off at night. The railways treat the disabled as a piece of luggage. This needs to stop,” she goes on.
After Virali’s petition was shared extensively on digital platforms, a response from Maneka Gandhi, the Union minister for women and child development, also came out expressing support to Virali, and she wrote to Union railway minister Suresh Prabhu to address the issue of accessibility. With the help of Southern Railways, she has been working towards the goal, without waiting for the governments to act, and has made Thiruvananthapuram accessible to all, and has Kochi on cards now.
Having wheelchairs accessible at railway stations will not only help the 26.8 million Indians with disabilities (as per 2011 Census), but also many elderly, the 25-year- old Virali says, adding, “A railway official from Thiruvananthapuram approa-ched me saying that he’ll try and make everything possible. We started talking on a WhatsApp group, and I started giving them ideas of how trains could become accessible, without harming the infrastructure. We started shooting ideas back and forth, and what (ever) seemed doable, they did. Trains are slowly but surely being made more accessible with Chennai and Thiruvananthapuram implementing foldable wheelchairs that can go directly into the coach and movable ramps. There will also be a helpline number for women, which allows for a lady to escort a wheelchair user.”
This young woman, who has also been a motivational speaker, model, a former Miss India Wheelchair runner-up and an aspiring actress, says the railway minister Suresh Prabhu recently acknowledged the work that the railways and she have put into making Thiruvananth-apuram accessible. “For a fully accessible railway, the whole station, including the trains and bathrooms need to become wheelchair accessible. I plan on working on that as well, but this is the first step. For stations without lifts or ramps, the molestation I faced could happen again to anyone. I won’t resist until India is accessible,” a gritty Virali says, signing off....