Recently, I received a mail via Change.org, with information about a campaign started by Virali Modi, who apart from being a writer and motivational speaker, is a renowned disability rights activist.
Virali, who has been a wheelchair user since 2004, first came face to face with the difficulties of travelling on trains in 2006. For her, the first unsettling instance on this journey was when she arrived at the Mumbai railway station and was horrified at the abysmal condition of the ramp to be used by wheelchair users.
Dirty, littered with spit and urine and crowded by other commuters without any disability, the ramp was extremely difficult for her to navigate.
The train had narrow stairs, doors and corridors, making it impossible for someone on a wheelchair to board. The only option for her was to be carried into the train by porters.
“One guy held me between my legs, from underneath my armpits. While he was doing that, he put his hands on my breasts. Initially, I thought it was unintentional, something that could have happened by mistake, but his hands felt me up repeatedly till the time I was put on my seat,” she said in an interview with The Indian Express.
This wasn’t a random incident either, and she faced this ordeal again in 2008 and in 2011, when she travelled by train again.
These incidences raise questions about how we as a nation perceive and treat those with disabilities, a percentage which, according to the Census of India, 2011, counts almost 27 million citizens, out of which, almost 5.5 million people have a disability that limits movement and another 2 million have multiple disabilities.
In Virali’s case, these instances made her wonder about the lack of safety and inconvenience a person with a disability travelling by train had to face.
In her petition, she also mentions other challenges and inconveniences those with disabilities have to face while travelling by trains. “The commodes are too low and the sinks are too high. I’ve therefore had to wear diapers, which in itself is an embarrassing feeling. It gets soiled and wet, but I’ve had to wait till night, until the lights have been switched off, so that my mom can help me change them. At the same time, I feel unsafe, because there is no privacy. There are no proper curtains in place and anyone with a prying eye can see what I’m doing,” she says.
Although she has previously written open letters, petitions and resorted to all possible methods of reaching out to the railway ministry and asking for necessary measures to be implemented, she has been greeted with indifference and a lack of sympathy.
Her letter to the Prime Minister highlighting her grievances, for example, was passed on to the Ministry of External Affairs, and she was told that her grievances didn’t pertain to the specific ministry in question.
Virali, however, refused to take no for an answer, and has been persistent and resilient in her quest to make her voice reach the authorities.
The year 2016 came with a glimmer of hope as the railway minister announced changes in the existing railway system to make it more accessible to those with disabilities, but this soon turned out to be a half-hearted attempt.
The larger demands for better and exclusive ramps and lifts, wider doors for wheelchairs, specially designed washrooms and other facilities which would make travelling by train easier for those with disabilities, have since been voiced by many.
Since online campaigning has become an important form of protest in today’s times, and examples of these campaigns gaining momentum and prompting a positive response and quick action regarding their agendas are many, Virali chose to start her own petition on this platform.
The petition has generated over 150,000 signatures and has prompted the railway ministry to release statements promising to make railways friendly for people with disabilities very soon.
Her campaign, #MyTrainToo, has managed to not only gain sympathy and support from citizens but also enabled those with similar experiences to speak up against it.
A large number of people such as people with disability, their relatives, doctors or the general populace, have signed and spread the word of this campaign.
In February this year, it came to the attention of the Union Minister for Women and Child Development, Maneka Gandhi, who replied to Virali on social media by saying that the petition had been passed to the offices of the Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu, and they’ve agreed to bring about massive changes in the railway system soon. Thus making it friendly for people with disability and more convenient.
With a large travelling populace, including people with disabilities, this campaign and its results are, thus, a ray of hope for many.