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Paralysed photographer struggles against bureaucracy and culture in fight for disability rights

Juicebox Gallery

By PM collaborators - October 19, 2016
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Section: [Main News] [IN PICTURES] [Features]
Tags: [culture] [photography]

As Osama Silwadi approached the Mahmoud Darwish Museum, he waited for a moment in his car. Before he could talk, he needed to prepare. First, an assistant got his wheelchair from the boot of his car.
After patting it down and adjusting the cushion, he shuffled into it, using his steering wheel for balance. Then, he started up the slope to the museum, along a winding path suitable for the wheelchair. Finally, at a spot near Darwish’s grave, shaded by a tree, he rested.
Silwadi did not always face these difficulties. Before, he was a successful photojournalist at a time when there were “no Palestinian photographers to cover the news.” He cut his teeth covering the First Intifada, as a nineteen-year-old. First, he worked for Agence France Presse, then for Reuters. He covered the Oslo Accords and the Second Intifada.
“After I left Reuters, I started my own project,” Silwadi continues. “It was the first Palestinian photo agency, or even the first Arab photo agency.” His sense of pride is obvious. Justifiably so: his work was distributed all over the world. “It was very good work,” he smiles.
But on October 7, 2006, covering a demonstration in Ramallah, Silwadi was shot in the stomach. The bullet kept going. His spine was instantly smashed. A Palestinian gunman had fired into the air, and Silwadi was unlucky.
He screamed for help. But quickly, he collapsed into a coma. When Silwadi woke up, a month later, he was paralysed from the waist down. His doctors told him he would never work again.
What did Silwadi do next? “I laughed and told them: 'I will work again.’” He was serious. “When I left the hospital, I started a plan for my new life. I changed my car. I rented a new office on street level.”
Silwadi also bought a new house, also on ground level. “I didn’t trust the electricity in town. If there was a power cut – because the electricity supplier is the occupation – and the elevator was broken for two days, I’d be stuck at home.”
If anything, his accident spurred Silwadi to work even harder than before. He has published ten photography books on Palestinian life, detailing everything from its architecture to its food.
Meanwhile, alongside his photography, Silwadi has developed another passion. He did not suggest to meet at the Mahmoud Darwish Museum by chance. It is one of the few places in Ramallah accessible by wheelchair. On principle, he refuses to go to cafes that make no effort to improve disabled access. Nor is this just a personal stance. Silwadi is also fighting for disabled Palestinians generally.
Disability is “a very big problem in Palestine,” he begins. “The Palestinian Authority signed an international agreement [in 2014] to help disabled people. But nobody implemented it.”
Why? “I don’t know, it is a shame.”
It certainly is. Chronic intermarriage and trigger-happy Israeli soldiers have made Palestine a centre for disability. 7% of the population suffer from some kind of physical disability. In Gaza, this figure is as high as 20%.
One reason for the lack of progress might be societal. “We have problems in the culture,” admits Silwadi. “We look at disabled people as unable to work.” When he first became paralysed, Silwadi recalls, people were amazed that he could drive his car (he had a custom hand-controlled accelerator and brake installed).
Experts agree that the cultural ignorance surrounding disability is an enormous challenge. Saffiya Khalid al-Ali is a member of the Arab Organisation for Persons with Disabilities. “There is a lack of awareness about disability” in Palestinian culture, she explains, adding that disability is a “cultural taboo.”  
Shadi Zmorrod, the director of the Palestinian Circus School, vividly describes how these “taboos” are manifested in practice. His organisation helps disabled children around the West Bank, through acrobatics and other physical exercises.
“I went to a house with seven children, and one was disabled. The father said he only had six children,” he remembered. The seventh was forgotten altogether.
Unsurprisingly, these problems have a serious impact in terms of education. According to a report by Palestinian Consultative Staff for Developing NGOs, “53% of disabled Palestinians” are illiterate, while “87% are unemployed.”
Still, things are changing gradually, and Silwadi is at the heart of this progress. “If we can say: I made a revolution on this issue,” he says.
“I go directly to the banks, to the municipality, and speak with them. Some of them made access easier for disabled people.” But given the lack of understanding towards the disabled in Palestine, some institutions tend to dither. In those cases, “I threaten to sue them,” smiles Silwadi. Silwadi has also pushed for universities introduce quotas for disabled participation.
All this means that “things are better than ten years ago – much better actually.”
But that is not to say that Silwadi is satisfied: “we hope for more and more and more.” The right to work and travel are “universal human rights,” he says.
“If I gave up, I would be dead. I want to help other people: to go out, to study, to work, to marry, to love, to have a normal life. This is not easy, but it is a must.”
Still, Silwadi is conscious that for all he has achieved, “you have to change the mind of people” if disabled Palestinians are to be successful in the long-term. “The hard thing to change is the mentality of people towards the disabled. This will take time, but it will happen.”

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