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‘Disability is possibility’: a mission to bust myths in India – photo essay | Global development

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When he isn’t working on the farm or making things out of jute, Gobinda Majumdar likes to walk to a tea stall near his home in Assam to buy sweets for his nieces. All this he explains with tactile signing, the only means of communication for the 37-year-old, who cannot speak and has no hearing or sight.

Born deaf, Majumdar then went blind at the age of two after contracting rubella. Life has its challenges but he hopes to find a wife. “My younger brother is married so why not me?” he told the photographer Vicky Roy, who visited him in Kamrup district as part of a project to share stories of people with disabilities in rural India.

“I aim to highlight ordinary people with disabilities so their relatable stories strike a chord among others like them and create awareness about disability among the general public,” says Roy. “My clear objectives are: focus on the person, not the disability; show them not as objects of pity but as ordinary human beings pursuing their simple dreams; and make sure there is an equal mix of male and female subjects.”

Gobinda Majumdar
Gobinda Majumdar
Gobinda Majumdar
Gobinda Majumdar

  • Gobinda Majumdar was born deaf and went blind at the age of two. He makes things to sell out of jute, bamboo and coconut leaves and his late father taught him how to look after the cattle and run the small farm where he lives with his family

Roy has been travelling across the country – Covid permitting – for the past six months, photographing people with the 21 disabilities officially recognised in India. The project Everyone is Good at Something (EGS) is publishing a steady stream of stories to challenge widespread stigma and taboo. “Hopefully, these images will open up discussion of disability and perhaps even influence policy,” he says.

“Real change takes time and we will continue this for as long as it takes,” says VR Ferose, founder of the India Inclusion Foundation, who launched EGS with Roy, with the goal of publishing 15,000 stories from every state in the country.

“The law in India is very progressive in terms of protecting the rights of people with disabilities. The problem is most people don’t know about it,” says Ferose, an engineer based in California, who began working on disability rights after his son was born with autism 12 years ago.

“We know that in India people don’t talk about disability because there is a sense of taboo. One reason may be the notion of ‘karma’, where people think someone has a disability because they did something evil in the past,” he says. “We asked ourselves: how do we change this narrative, and we decided to do a kind of Humans of New York [a photoblog of street portraits and interviews], but featuring people across India with disabilities.”

Tiffany Brar
Nincy Mariam Mondly
Tariq Ahmad Mir
Sohkhotinlen Haokip

  • ‘Disability is possibility,’ says Tiffany Brar, 30, who runs a training centre for blind people. Nincy Mariam Mondly was training as a paramedic when a fall injured her spinal cord. Tariq Ahmad Mir, an award-winning embroiderer, was born with muscular dystrophy. Sohkhotinlen Haokip, 31, has Down’s syndrome and enjoys being around people

Amer Hussain Lone

  • Amer Hussain Lone, who lost both arms aged eight, is the captain of the Jammu and Kashmir para-cricket team

India’s census records about 2% of the population as having disabilities, compared with a world average nearer 15%, which suggests many people do not discuss disabilities in their family, says Ferose.

In 2015 victims of acid attacks were added to the list of disabled people, and Roy went to Agra in Uttar Pradesh to meet five women who help run the Sheroes Hangout, a cafe and community for acid-attack survivors.

Now 27, Roopa was 14 when her stepmother poured acid on her face. Today she looks after the accounts and designs for the boutique at Sheroes.

The women who run Sheroes Hangout cafe in Agra

  • The women who run the Sheroes Hangout cafe in Agra. Rukaiya Khathun, front right, was 14 when she was attacked with acid. She says: ‘I used to always wear a burqa, but now I am comfortable in jeans and T-shirt’

Roy says he deliberately seeks out stories that that have received little coverage, but the project also features some leading campaigners.

After his leg was amputated following a bomb attack in the Kargil war, Maj Devender Pal Singh from Chandigarh began running half-marathons. Known as India’s “first blade-runner”, he interviews former soldiers who have overcome similar challenges in life on his YouTube channel, Never Say Die, and founded The Challenging Ones, an organisation that has encouraged more than 1,400 amputees across India to take up sports.

Major Devender Pal Singh

In Akuluto, Nagaland, Ashe Kiba remembers the cruelty of neighbours who believed she was “cursed” because she was born with fewer and shorter fingers. She would hide her hands and skipped years of school because of taunts. Eventually, however, she completed a degree in English literature and began speaking for the Nagaland State Disability Forum (NSDF), of which she is now the general secretary.

Ashe Kiba
Ashe Kiba
Ashe Kiba
Ashe Kiba

  • Growing up, Ashe Kiba was taunted by others who believed she was cursed because her hands were different. She wanted to drop out of school but her mother encouraged her to continue. She graduated in English literature and decided to become a voice for others like her. She is now general secretary of the Nagaland State Disability Forum. Her message to all people with disabilities is: ‘Be strong and fearless. We must accept our uniqueness. Let’s not hide’

Each story includes five images, with subjects photographed at home – in their own “kingdom”, says Roy – with their families.

“Society either ignores people with disabilities or treats them as lesser human beings. It does not give them a chance to reveal their thought-provoking views, their diverse abilities and even their sense of humour,” says Roy, who will eventually recruit other volunteers to help with the project.

From left, friends Simi Kalita, Sisila Das and Runu Medhi

  • From left, friends Simi Kalita, Sisila Das and Runu Medhi, who live in Guwahati, Assam. Sisila contracted polio when she was two. Runu was a premature baby, whose twin died at birth, and has cerebral palsy. Simi, who is Runu’s cousin, also has cerebral palsy

“When we arrive at people’s homes, they are very welcoming,” says Roy. “They say they are happy to see us because they are finally getting some respect.”

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[Ticker] US backs WHO plan for further Covid-origin investigation

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US secretary of state Antony Blinken affirmed his country’s support to conduct additional investigations into the origins of the Covid-19 after meeting with the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, on Wednesday, Reuters reported. “He stressed the need for the next phase to be timely, evidence-based, transparent, expert-led, and free from interference,” a US state department spokesperson said in a statement.

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‘Freudian Slip’: Biden Confuses Trump With Obama in New Gaffe

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The 78-year-old American president is known to be prone to verbal gaffes and slips of the tongue, for which he is usually criticized or mocked by some people on social media.

US President Joe Biden appeared to confuse former US President Barack Obama for another former US president, Donald Trump, in a Wednesday speech, but swiftly corrected himself and suggested that the mistake was a “Freudian slip”.

“Back in 2009, during the so-called Great Recession, the president asked me to be in charge of managing that piece, then-President Trump,” Biden said while addressing the public in Pennsylvania. “Excuse me, Freudian slip, that was the last president. He caused the…anyway, President Obama, when I was vice-president.”

Apparently, Biden briefly messed up the timeline, confusing his predecessor, Trump, with the 44th US president, Obama. Even his quick apology did not prevent social media users from picking up on his gaffe.

​Some suggested that since a Freudian slip occurs as an action inspired by an internal train of thought or unconscious wish, it was Biden “dreaming” about working with Trump rather than Obama.

​Others argued that the 46th president does not know what a Freudian slip really is.

​Biden was in Pennsylvania on Wednesday speaking at a Mack Truck assembly plant in Lehigh Valley, promoting his administration’s new measures to encourage US citizens and companies to “buy American”. Particularly, he announced plans to modify the 1933 Buy American Act that requires federal firms and agencies to purchase goods that have at least 55% US-made components. 

Under the Biden plan, the threshold will be increased to 65% by 2024 and to 75% by 2029.



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Countdown to the airstrike: the moment Israeli forces hit al-Jalaa tower, Gaza | Global development

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Countdown to destruction

During the 11-day war between Israel and Palestinian militants in May 2021, Israeli airstrikes destroyed five multi-storey towers in the heart of Gaza City. The images of buildings crumbling to the ground flashed across TV channels around the world as Gaza faced the most intense Israeli offensive since 2014. At least 256 Palestinians were killed, including 66 children, and 13 in Israel, including two children. Israel claimed it was destroying the military capabilities of Hamas, who had fired rockets at Israel after weeks of tension in Jerusalem over the planned displacement of Palestinian residents and police raids on al-Aqsa mosque during Ramadan.

Each time Israel said it was targeting Hamas and that it had warned the residents first. But what is it like to have only a few minutes to evacuate before watching your life collapse into rubble?

In conjunction with the civilian harm monitoring organisation Airwars, the Guardian spoke with dozens of residents and gathered footage and photos to piece together the story of one building, al-Jalaa tower, demolished by an Israeli airstrike on 15 May 2021. These are the stories from inside the tower, of the Mahdi clan, who owned and lived in the building, the Jarousha family and the Hussein family.

Israeli airstrikes in Gaza hit a 12-storey building in the early hours of 12 May 2021.
Clockwise from top left: Israeli airstrikes in Gaza hit a 12-storey building in the early hours of 12 May 2021; a 13-storey residential block collapses in the Gaza Strip on 11 May 2021; an Israeli airstrike on Gaza City, 14 May 2021; smoke rises following an Israeli strike on al-Shorouq tower in Gaza City, 12 May 2021.

The story of al-Jalaa tower

The upscale Rimal area of Gaza City and its multi-storey towers had suffered since the bombing began. Though al-Jalaa was thought to be safe, night-long bombing had terrified its residents, who struggled to sleep. Fearing the impact of blasts, families had been sleeping in hallways away from the windows.

Children from al-Jalaa tower get ready to sleep in the hallway of the building for safety. Photo: Issam Mahdi

Al-Jalaa tower was built in 1994 as part of a property boom sparked by the landmark Oslo peace agreements between the Palestinians and Israelis.

The first five floors were offices, with floors six to 10 inhabited by families. On floor 11, the top floor, were the Gaza offices of the Associated Press and Al Jazeera, two of the world’s largest media companies. The ground floor had two levels of shops and beneath it was a car park.

Many of the residents came from the Mahdi family, including the building’s owner Jawad and his son Mohammed.

After each marriage in the Mahdi clan the new family settled into the tower. Jawad, 68, had traded in Israel before 2007 when the Jewish state blockaded Gaza after the Islamist group Hamas seized control of the territory. Since then he has run his clothes company in Gaza.

The whole family had huddled together into a few apartments on the sixth floor for safety, but were about to be scattered as they rushed to evacuate.


Timeline



The aftermath

As Jawad searches through the rubble he finds a single folder. It contains pictures of his wedding day.

Jawad Mahdi with a photograph of his wedding day, found amid the rubble of al-Jalaa tower. Photo: Mohammed Mahdi

Mohannad and Suzanne’s cats were never found. “I still don’t know their fate until today,” Mohannad says. “Every day from the moment it was destroyed I was going to the building listening for any sound.”

Suzanne says their lives will never be the same. “Everything you love is gone – it doesn’t matter about the cupboards and beds and things. There are things my kids had when they were babies, clothes that I had from when I was a child – these were memories. There was a box with all the things from my father, god rest his soul, his glasses and mobile and pictures. Where am I going to get things like that again?

“We have become people without memories or mementoes. What is a person without those? If you have no memories you feel like you never lived.”

Walid Hussein, the engineer who had returned with his family from years living in the US, has become like a ghost. He has not a single document to prove who he is. Sometimes he thinks about going back to the US for his children, but he has his elderly mother in Gaza to support. He doesn’t want to have to make a choice. He shares his hopes for a peaceful future in Gaza:

“This is all we are asking for, to live a peaceful life. Very peaceful life, it means security, it means no harm to anybody, it means don’t touch my kids – not because you have this technology and this kind of weapon you bomb all of us from the air.”

Main photo: NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock, Guardian composite; Satellite images ©2021 Maxar Tech/AFP/Getty Images, Google Earth

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