According to an NCHPAD study, just over half the people with intellectual disabilities all over the world have some form of employment. For people with Down Syndrome, the jobs they are employed in were found to largely underutilize their skills. KnowDisability, an organisation started by Delhi-based photographer and bike enthusiast Mohit Ahuja, is trying to change that.
Mohit is the second child of his parents and grew up with an elder sister who has Crouzon Syndrome, which is a genetic disorder which prevents the skull from growing normally and affects the shape of the head and face. She has been working at an NGO where she makes candles and diyas. He told InUth,
“So I have a sister who is challenged and I’ve grown up with words like ‘autism’ and ‘Down syndrome’ in my house. She’s the first kid of the family and has something known as Crouzon Syndrome, which in layman language is called “monster face”. I looked at my own sister Neeru who, after 30 years of going to the NGO where she goes, earns a stipend of Rs 1,500/month. So that was a depressing thing to look at.”
In 2015, Mohit quit his job to host a photography workshop for people with special needs. The workshop led to the founding of KnowDisability which aims to provide more opportunities to people with intellectual disabilities. Till date, Mohit has trained over 300 people with intellectual disabilities and introduced them to the art of photography. And this brought new perspectives to the table.
“Vikas and Bharat have a slant in their vision. So they need a little assistance holding the camera up. So Vikas and Bharat, they initially had this nag that whatever picture that they click, suppose they’re doing your portrait, so they will focus on the sky or the wall than your face. People are out there teaching how to do very minimalistic photography and this is something they’re born with.”
We talked to a few trainees who come to the studio, located in Delhi’s Hauz Khaz, daily. They shoot and practice with different subjects to build their profile and some of them have even bagged assignments like covering tattoo artists, celebrities, friends, bike rallies etc. The studio is filled with works of the photographers — shots of bikes in a circuit, a man’s face half-covered by a mask, jewellery portraits, Bharatnatyam dancers performing under a tree etc.
But convincing the parents to let their children attempt photography was a tough task.
“Convincing the parents was a little tough because we’ve been trained by the society which tells you that don’t expect too much from your child. Initially, there was a lot of friction but when one of them got an assignment to shoot for a motorcycle brand, he was paid Rs 10,000 on the spot with the parents being applauded on the stage by 200 bikers. That’s something a parent does not expect from a differently-abled kid. So that was a turnaround and others started thinking that if one can earn money, so can we. And money runs the world.”
Now, Mohit wants to see his students stand on their own feet, fetch assignments on their own and make progress as photographers. He says he wants them to move on not because he’s trying to distance them from his life but so that they can get out of his shadow and get hired. He also wishes for people to employ them based on their own skill sets.
“All of us have faults. All of us also have some or the other ‘disability’. There are so many things I cannot do so I’m also disabled if you look at that way. But we very smartly say that we are ‘normal’ and they are challenged.”