Gershom Gale wants you to know what it feels like to be handicapped. "The best way to understand the problem is to go to Yad Sarah, the organization that provides wheelchairs for the disabled, borrow a wheelchair and spend a couple of days in it," he says. "Just tell yourself that you're not getting up out of that wheelchair. You'll find you can't go anywhere or do anything. If that doesn't show you the scope of the problem, nothing will."
Gale, the 55-year-old editor of The Jerusalem Post's Christian Edition, knows what it feels like to be handicapped. Injured in a car accident in his native Canada in 1972 and wheelchair-bound since 1999, he says he knows "all too well" about the difficulties that disabled people face here in Israel each and every day.
Typical of Gale's daily aggravations was a recent visit to a government office in Tel Aviv to get approval for a specially designed vehicle that can be driven from a wheelchair. In an office dedicated to assisting the handicapped, the "so-called handicapped bathroom," says Gale, was a "travesty - 10 feet long, three feet wide, one toilet at the end and a big wastebin in the middle of the room blocking entry in a wheelchair. You couldn't get into the bathroom without lifting this big wastebin over your head and bringing it behind you in the wheelchair. Then when you get to the toilet there's no room to turn the wheelchair around. You have to back out again - once more lifting this wastebin that you'd just moved to the front - and then you find you can't get out because the door only opens inward. You're in the wheelchair and can't reach the door handle. If I hadn't had my son with me, I'd be stuck in there still," he says.
The difficulties Gale faces are not only exasperating but often absurd. "When I go to Kupat Holim Leumit, for example, I can't see my doctor in his office. I have to see him in the lobby because his office is down nine steps. Then there's a building in Jerusalem that's supposed to be a center for people with disabilities - one of the main Bituah Leumi (National Insurance) buildings - and I can't get into it because of 12 steps into the front door. This is typical of the sort of non-thinking attitude that goes into these things," says Gale.
Yuval Wagner, the 41-year-old chairman of Access Israel, an advocacy group for the disabled, echoed such sentiments. "I always say that disabled people in Israel are punished twice. First they're punished by just getting disabled. The second punishment is the environment, the problem of accessibility, of employment. Disability is something that no one wants. It's not something that you order or even expect - but it's something that can happen to you any day. It can be from a car accident, a work accidentâ€¦any day you can become disabled. You never know when it's going to happen, and when you get it you can't do anything about it. What the country can do - can change - is what happens after."
For Wagner, himself disabled in a 1987 IDF helicopter accident, a lot of "what comes after" depends on how serious the government is about providing the disabled with services and assistance, and ensuring that the disabled receive the rights accorded to them by law.
This can be as simple as enforcing the proper use of handicapped parking spaces, says Wagner. "The issue of people parking in handicapped parking places is totally non-enforced. The handicapped advocacy organizations are forever approaching the police and Transport Ministry, begging them to do something to enforce handicapped parking. This is the first step in the goal of accessibility. It's a giant problem in Israel," he says.
And not the only one. Visitors from the US and Canada often observe that this country lags far behind in its sensitivity to the mobility problems of people with special needs. Returning to the US from a recent visit to Israel with his Oakland, California, congregation, Rabbi Steven Chester described the difficulties of providing transportation to two wheelchair-bound members of his tour group. "During this tour, I saw a side of Israel I had never seen before, a side that was always there but to which I was not sensitive, a side that made me both sad and angry," he told Metro.
Chester recounted that his tour group was provided with two buses - a "beautiful" one for the able-bodied congregants, and an "accessible" vehicle for the two members in wheelchairs. "I quickly realized how inferior the accessible bus was to the other tour bus," he recalled. "It was much older and much more worn."
More importantly, the lift for the wheelchair proved to be dangerous, lacking any safety guards in front or on its sides to keep a wheelchair from rolling off. Many, if not most, of the places the tour group visited were not wheelchair accessible.
"I learned that Israel is not a country for all Jews. I learned that our beloved state has a long way to go so that Jews with physical disabilities would feel welcomed in a caring and dignified way. I learned that the saying from Isaiah 'My house shall be a house for all peoples' is not reality when it comes to issues of accessibility," Chester concluded.
Such accessibility issues in Israel extend into the religious realm as well. A recent survey by Bema'aglei Zedek, a civil rights advocacy group for workers and people with special needs, found that 90 percent of synagogues in Israel are not accessible to people in wheelchairs.
Estimates by the government and the various advocacy groups place the total number of handicapped people in Israel at 600,000, of whom roughly 150,000 are severely disabled - that is, incapable of performing one or more of life's basic functions without assistance, such as walking.
What accounts for Israel's seeming disregard for the mobility problems of so many of its citizens? Some, like Gale, see the problem largely as the result of an "unthinking attitude" that drives most people's behavior. "It's not callousness, it's just being unaware," he says.
Others, like US-based writer Howard Chabner, observe that "the Israeli preference for improvisation and ad hoc solutions over planning, which has served the country so well in many areas, is partially responsible for this situation."
Still others, however, identify a deeper root to the problem. "I think there is still a big problem in dealing with the handicapped in Israeli society," says Asaf Banner, general manager of Bema'aglei Zedek. He cites a recent case in which an organization for severely handicapped children faced fierce neighborhood opposition to its plans to open a residential care and treatment facility in a wealthy suburban town north of Tel Aviv. "The neighbors said things like, 'Why do I have to see handicapped children in my neighborhood?' 'Why do I have to look at them near my own home?' and 'Why do my children have to see them?'" says Banner.
"This is something that must be changed through education," he asserts.
Oren Ganor, spokesman for Bizchut, a powerful advocacy group established in 1992, agrees: "There are plenty of laws, and the government has many solutions for the problems of the disabled. The main problem is in the streets: people's day-to-day bad attitudes."
Not everyone agrees, however, that the problem is specifically Israeli. Civil rights activist Aderette Karni, 42, blind and wheelchair bound since 2000, says, "I have a problem with people saying 'hamedina hazot' (this country). I found when I was living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, that people react to the disabled the same all over the world, so 'in this country' is an expression I do not use. People everywhere treat handicapped people improperly. They see a handicapped person and say, 'Here's someone retarded. I don't want to go near him.'"
However one explains the problem, the quotidian result is the separation of the disabled from the rest of the Israeli population; their exclusion from much of what the country has to offer in employment opportunities, education, housing and recreation; and the prevention of their full involvement in Israeli life. Says Gale, "There are two different worlds out there - one for the able-bodied and one for the handicapped. There's no need for it, and it's not fair."
Much of the work of the various advocacy groups has focused on eliminating the barriers between the able-bodied and handicapped through education and heightened awareness. Wagner believes that this work has had a visible impact.
"What I can say has improved dramatically in the past several years is the public's awareness. I think that a few years ago, if you asked people about disabilities, you'd hear from them that it's a stigma. Now we're in a much better place, with more knowledge and awareness."
For Wagner, a large part of raising the awareness of businesses has been by persuading them that accessibility is in their own interest. "We have many places improve their access to the disabled just by getting them to understand why doing this is important. This is a trend. When I go to businesses and tell them to make their places accessible, I tell them to do it because it will be good for their business. I make them understand that they'll not only be doing the right thing and be in compliance with the law but that they'll get more customers and improve their image. That's the best way - to give businesses more knowledge and understanding that this is good for them."
Banner agrees that attitudes are changing and that progress is being made. "Things are moving. Today, 'disability' is a term that everyone knows. A few years ago, they did not. Things are moving, slowly."
One way in which Banner's organization is raising awareness is through its Social Seal program, under which businesses that treat their workers fairly and provide full access to the disabled receive the group's seal of approval. Banner describes this as a kind of "social kashrut," adding, "we are calling on the public to patronize these places. There are now more than 200 of them. We've gotten around 60 coffee shops, restaurants and other eateries to build ramps because we asked the public to eat only in these places."
Perhaps the most innovative approach is that of Beit Issie Shapiro, Israel's world-renowned educational and treatment facility for children with special needs. In cooperation with the municipality of Ra'anana, Beit Issie has constructed a state-of-the-art, fully accessible playground on eight dunams within Ra'anana Park. The first of its kind in Israel, Park Haverim (Friends Park) features specially designed swings, carousels that children can ride in wheelchairs, and special accommodations for children with hearing and sight impairments. Remarkable as it is, however, Friends Park is about more than just accessibility. Designed as a magnet for both disabled and non-disabled children, the park's purpose to is break down the barriers between the "two worlds" by putting both together at a young age. The effect of mixing mainstream children with those that have special needs is to increase both groups' awareness of each other and prevent the "bad attitudes" held by many adults.
A significant result of the efforts of handicapped advocacy groups has been the recent passage by the Knesset of the Equal Rights for People with Disabilities Law, first drafted in 1995 by Bizchut. The law, at present mainly a statement of principles, will have numerous provisions that still need to be clarified before they become fully operative. The law states, for example, that every business must have access ramps for wheelchairs. But the details of the required ramps - such as width, degree of incline, hand rails - must still be specified.
This has many advocates for the disabled worried. Says Banner, "The law is very advanced, but all of its parts won't come into effect until 2012. This gives everyone a lot of time to not do anything."
Then, there is the problem of enforcement. "Like a lot of other laws in Israel, the problem is not with the law but with the enforcement of the law," says Banner. "For example, there was a regulation that public buses must be accessible, so Egged bought buses with ramps. That looks really nice, but nobody gave any good instruction to the drivers to teach them how to use the ramps. So what happens is that the handicapped must wait for buses with ramps to pass and hope that the driver knows how to operate the ramp or has the key to open it or wants to deal with it or that he'll even stop for them at all."
For Wagner, however, enforcement of the law is almost beside the point. "I want businesses and public places to make themselves accessible because they understand what's important and that it's the right thing to do, not because someone tells them to do it," he says. "People basically want to do the right thing. I believe that."
Judging from the many tangible changes one can see throughout Israel, Wagner may be right. Civil rights advocate Karni reports that Israel Railways trains are wheelchair accessible, with special services available if ordered up to 24 hours in advance. The Western Galilee College in Acre, where Karni is studying education and criminology, is also fully accessible.
Gale notes that Malcha mall in Jerusalem was designed to be fully accessible. "If you look at it, there really aren't that many differences between Malcha mall and other places, but they make all the difference in the world for someone in a wheelchair," he says.
Elsewhere, schools, cultural institutions, businesses and recreational facilities are slowly but surely getting the message and making themselves more accessible. Even elevators in Israel, most of them traditionally too small for wheelchairs, are being made larger in new office and apartment buildings. Everyone agrees, though, that much remains to be done.
"We lag behind other countries," concludes Wagner, "but we are running very fast to catch up."
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