Access all areas

Access all areas

December 21, 2009 22:40
ear muffs

ear muffs. (photo credit: )

Have you ever tried finding the wineglass that is right in front of you while wearing a blindfold? Or cutting a steak wearing stiff oven gloves? And try ordering a dessert when you can barely hear what the waitress is saying and have to rely only on recognizing the shape of her lips as she says the words - it's almost impossible. But for thousands of Israelis with varying degrees of disabilities, these barriers are an everyday occurrence. Luckily, for me, the frustrating experience of eating in total darkness, navigating a main course with limited use of fingers and having total hearing loss while ordering some ice cream was only part of an experiential dinner - held this week as part of the country's first conference on accessibility for the disabled - to highlight the difficulties many people face. "Trying to eat when you can't see is difficult, right?" asks Yaniv, as some 20 dinner guests sit around the table with their eyes covered. "But at least for you guys you can take the eye masks off afterward. For me, this is only one of many daily challenges. There are many, many more such challenges for the visually impaired. "As a visually impaired person I have to fight on a daily basis for my right to live a normal life," continues the army intelligence officer, who lost his eyesight five years ago when a suicide bomber exploded right in front of him. He highlights some of the simplest day-to-day tasks that most able-bodied people take for granted, such as using a cellphone or just walking down the street as becoming far more complicated when a person's sight is limited. "Many sidewalks in Israel are not clearly marked and when you can't see, it's impossible to tell where the sidewalk begins and where it ends," says Yaniv, who relies on his seeing-eye dog, Louis, to help him navigate through his hometown of Herzliya. "And today, when cellphones are more than just entertainment but a necessity of life, most of the technology in Israel does not support Hebrew language applications for the blind," he says, explaining that the visually impaired need vocal support on a phone to dial numbers or send text messages. "I am lucky because I speak English, but for many people in Israel it's impossible for them to even use a cellphone," laments Yaniv, a staff member at the non-profit organization Access Israel, which organized the experiential dinner and conference. There is already a push for legislation that will hopefully change this and open up some of the world's new technology, including computers, to the visually impaired. ACCORDING TO Access Israel's founder and director Yuval Wagner, recent research indicates that some 18 percent of the population is physically or mentally disabled. However, the wheelchair-bound IDF veteran, who founded Access Israel a decade ago at the behest of president Ezer Weizman, believes that this figure could be much higher, with many people not viewing themselves as disabled but still struggling daily with accessibility and lack of public awareness. "It's is not just about passing laws, because sometimes they are passed and simply not implemented or there are no funds for them to be put into practice," states Wagner, who was instrumental in passing a series of laws in 2005 to improve accessibility into existing buildings countrywide. "It is also about raising public awareness to the challenges faced by people with all types of disabilities every day." As part of his work, Wagner often finds himself attempting to justify why a restaurant or other such business should make itself accessible to those with disabilities. "One of the tricks I use is to ask the owner to imagine what he or she would feel like if in order to enter their place able-bodied people had to climb over a wall," says Wagner, who became paralyzed from the neck down when a helicopter he was piloting crashed near the Golan Heights. "I explain to them that for people with disabilities even just a very small step at the entrance to their restaurant is the equivalent to a wall." Wagner also uses the analogy of going to a public place without a bathroom. No able-bodied person would go to such a restaurant, he theorizes, but for many people in wheelchairs access to public bathrooms is completely impossible. He also recalls vividly the family vacation that led him to start Access Israel. "I called several hotels to see if they would be accessible for me in a wheelchair," says Wagner. "Most of the places had no idea what it meant to be disabled accessible, but one place said, 'Yes, sure come to us; we are accessible.' My kids were very excited but when we got to the place and into the room, I realized that my wheelchair would not fit through the bathroom door. "What was I gonna do? Make everyone go home again? No way! I called the maintenance people and they agreed to make the door wider for me on the spot," he remembers, adding that even today only 30 percent of hotels are accessible for those with disabilities. "If we want to see a difference then we need to have both a change in awareness to the needs of people with disabilities and legislation that will be implemented." AS PART of its activities, Access Israel has become synonymous with organizing experiential events such as the Accessible Tastes Dinner. To highlight the International Day for the Disabled on December 3, Wagner and his team spent the day in the Knesset inviting legislators to see what it feels like to be visually or hearing impaired or have to navigate through a crowded place in a wheelchair. This week's events in Tel Aviv also featured guest speaker Douglas Anderson, chairman of the US Access Board, an independent federal agency devoted to accessibility for people with disabilities. "I've never experienced anything like this before," exclaims Anderson, as he attempts to find his wineglass and guess what type of wine has been poured for him. Acknowledging that awareness and legislation are the main keys to changing realities for people with disabilities, Anderson says that the purpose of his visit was to share some of his country's experiences with those working in the field here. There has be to be a balance between awareness and legislation or legal acts, observes Anderson, whose work with Chicago-based architectural firm LCM includes assisting both public and private entities in complying with the accessibility demands of the Access Board. "[In the US], lawsuits have forced companies to take the [accessibility] laws seriously," explains Anderson, giving the examples of multimillion-dollar corporations, such as McDonald's, which were forced to change their approach toward people with disabilities because of various legal proceedings. While he acknowledges that the US approach to improving rights for the disabled started some 50 years ago with basic federal laws and in that time there has been some progress, Anderson admits that there still needs to be a vast overhaul of certain infrastructures, such as subway stations and old buildings, as well as changes in the approach to employment for people with disabilities. "The end result is to allow people with disabilities to gain total independence," he says. "It they don't have the option to move around freely or support themselves financially, then how can they achieve this?" Although Anderson has been here a little more than a day, he says he has already observed some of the obstacles faced by the disabled here. "When one looks at Jerusalem, it is immediately clear that when it was designed no thought was given to people with disabilities," he says. "Although Tel Aviv is more of a modern city and they did have the chance to do that, for some reason, it did not happen." However, despite the obvious challenges to making cities, old and new, accessible to all those that live there, Anderson believes it can be done. "A change in attitudes would be effective," he says, adding that even in the US there was initial resistance to creating spaces that were accessible - because it restricted creative expression - but now there is a trend in architecture toward universal designs that are sustainable for the greatest number of people. "Some businesses that I have worked with have changed their approaches to accessibility because they believe it to be good business, others think it will good for their reputation and others just see it as the right thing to do," says Wagner of his experiences trying to persuade companies to become more open to their disabled clientele. "I don't really care why they agree to do it, just as long as they agree. "In the US they started working on this more than 30 years ago. We only started a decade ago, which is late, but in that time, because we are a small country, we have managed to get things moving fast. "Over the past 10 years there has been a dramatic improvement in public attitudes and awareness to all people with disabilities - physical, sight and hearing. However, the process of legislation is moving dangerously slowly, but at Access Israel we are working on speeding up the timetable of these laws and their implementation." Back at the dinner, most of the guests are receiving their dessert. Ordered while wearing soundproof headphones, people are more than surprised at the dishes that are placed in front of them. "I never would have guessed that I ordered sorbet. I thought she said there was apple pie," says one guest. While he is obviously disappointed at not getting the dessert of his fancy, he admits he is now much wiser to the travails many hearing impaired individuals experience regularly.

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