A change of gaze: Here are the stories of differently abled from across India celebrating their talents and dreams
Vicky Roy, a well-known photographer based in Delhi who has documented the grittiness of street life, has been travelling across the country and photographing the community.
A poet and a painter living thousands of miles apart, in different countries, fall in love. As in the movies, the lovers eventually meet, marry and raise a family. Jesfer P. Kottakkunnu from Kerala is an award-winning painter who has exhibited his work across India and abroad. His wife, Fathima P V, also a Malayali, is a published poet who was raised in Oman. But theirs is a different love story.
Jesfer holds his paintbrush with his mouth as he is paralysed from the neck down. He co-founded Green Palliative, an NGO that addresses disability and environmental concerns, and it is through the organisation’s Facebook page that the couple met. They have a son, Kenzal Rumi. Jesfer’s life has not been easy but it has been filled with inspiration and purpose. And poetry. His life story, and that of many others like him in the differently-abled community, is worth telling on the mountain.
Vicky Roy, a well-known photographer based in Delhi who has documented the grittiness of street life, has been travelling across the country and photographing the community, with the mission of telling their stories to a larger audience for a photo project. Jesfer was one among the several differently-abled people he met in the state of Kerala. Roy’s photo project is titled Everyone is Good at Something, and that is exactly what it aims to establish with every story published on its website—online since 2021—and Instagram page.
Overcoming the Challenge
Kavita Mathur is on her sewing machine, intently stitching away. She works at an Industrial Training Institute in Delhi, taking sewing classes for girls of all ages. Affected by polio during infancy, Kavita’s left hand and right leg remain weak, and a curvature of the spine has caused a humped back, which affects her body balance. In a photograph by Roy, she is seen making tea.
In another she is reading a book, comfortably sitting back on her bed. Yet another shows her petting her beloved dog, Dollar. None of the photographs feature anything out of the ordinary. They are snapshots from a normal day in the life of Kavita, when she’s at home. “The project aims to highlight ordinary persons with disability so that their relatable stories strike a chord among others from the community and also create awareness among the general public. I try to focus on the person, not the disability”, says Roy.
Everyone is Good at Something, although driven by Vicky’s photographs, is a project that is part of a larger mission, undertaken by the India Inclusion Foundation (IIF). Founded by VR Ferose, a technologist and author based in California, the Foundation strives to establish an inclusive society, ensuring complete accessibility for persons with disability. “Disability is not a condition that only a few people are faced with. My father, who is over 80 now, has severe knee pain that makes it hard for him to walk without assistance. If nothing else does, old age will make us all disabled”, says the author.
Glam Glasses - Why Not?
Ferose’s son is autistic so he is no stranger to such conditions and his commitment to the cause is deeply personal. “A large part of the population wears glasses to see better. But nobody talks about it in terms of disability because, as a society, we have normalised, even glamorised wearing glasses”, he explains, emphasising that the narratives around their challenges needs changing.
Everyone is Good at Something aims to bring about this change by celebrating people’s abilities rather than lamenting their disabilities. The project has a dedicated team of writers and translators from across the country, who have all volunteered to work on it, while remaining anonymous. All the stories on the website have translations available in five languages other than English, including Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Bangla and Kannada.
“Awareness and empathy, not sympathy or pity, is the aim of Everyone is Good at Something”, says CK Meena, a Bengaluru-based journalist and writer, who is associated with the project as an editor of the written content. “We want to put the people centre stage and keep ourselves in the background since they are the heroes and heroines of their stories”, says Meena, “The website is accessible to the blind and visually impaired. They can hear the content using text-to-speech software and all the photos have closed captions for them”, she adds.
Roy has covered all 28 states in the country and photographed people with all 21 disabilities listed by the Government of India, but he assures that the project has only just started. Whether it is Jyothi K from Tamil Nadu, who wishes to travel the world, or, Narsing Rao Bongurala from Telangana who fondly remembers meeting actor Amitabh Bachchan, all have stories to tell that stand as testaments to their grit and perseverance despite their day-to-day struggles. “Society always limits us, telling us we can only go thus far,” says Kiran B Nayak, a polio-affected transman from Karnataka, on the Everyone is Good at Something site. “Unless we go farther, how can we be free?”