(photo credit: KKL-JNF)
Did you ever hear someone saying that a person in a wheelchair can’t possibly take part in nature excursions, or that a blind person can’t enjoy the beauty of landscapes, or that a deaf person doesn’t need to hear interesting explanations? At the extraordinary hands-on Sukkot Happening at the Hula Lake Park, it was very obvious that with a little goodwill, everything is possible – for everyone!
This fascinating event was held by KKL-JNF in cooperation with Access Israel, an association whose whole aim is to enable people with disabilities to be integrated in society on an equal and independent basis, and the Joint Distribution Committee’s Masad Disabilities (Israel Unlimited) program.At various stations set up at the entrance to the site and all along the route, many of the visitors were given the opportunity to experience the world from the viewpoint of a person with disabilities, giving them a better understanding of the importance of openness and sensitivity to people with special needs.
At one of the stations, visitors tried out their strength in moving around in a wheelchair or walking on crutches, discovering just how difficult it is to reach a target point when the path has not been made accessible. One of the guidance staff at this site was Yaffa Sidi from Haifa, a volunteer in Access Israel. “The aim is for people to understand how very difficult it is for a person in a wheelchair to cope, day after day, in every circumstance. We believe that this encounter with the daily reality that the disabled face can bring about change and raise awareness.”
Rachel Perry, another counselor at the wheelchair station, added that in spite of all the challenges, it’s important for the disabled to be able to go outdoors into a country setting, and it’s good that KKL-JNF has undertaken the mission of making the outdoors accessible for those with mobility handicaps.
Raffi Rotman from Jerusalem finished the route saying that until he himself tried to move around in a wheelchair, he had no idea exactly what it entailed. His message after the experience: “The disability shouldn’t be the focus of attention but the individual’s positive strengths.”
At another stopping point, children were asked to taste ice cream with their eyes covered, and try to distinguish the different flavors. “Hey, I can’t see anything,” Daniel Mashta, age 8 from Gilon, shouted out in surprise when the blind-fold was placed over his eyes. It turned out that it’s not always easy to tell the difference between chocolate and vanilla when one can’t see the brown and the white. Never mind – the main thing is that the ice-cream is cold, delicious and sweet, and cools one down on a hot day!
Mirit, Daniel’s mother, said that their family often visits the Hula Lake Park, and made sure to come on this special day, as they wanted to see their well-known and much-loved place from a completely different angle.
Blind people, accompanied by guide-dogs, invited the visitors to go round the route with them, and to understand that for the visually impaired, the seeing-eye dog is not just their best friend, but also serves literally as the guide that enables them to reach their required destination safely.
Adi Natan, a special education teacher from Haifa, led hikers using his own guide dog, Yoni, that accompanies him everywhere he goes, serving as his eyes in every circumstance. “People are so excited when they finish this activity,” he said. “Because they simply didn’t believe that a blind man can function exactly like any other person. All that we need is a little consideration from those around us.”
It was particularly emotional to see how the children looked at the blind guides, listening to their explanations and fully taking in their meaning. One might almost say that it was an ‘eye-opener’ for them -- not to mention the pleasure the kids had giving the dogs pats and hugs.
There were also special activities for the hearing-impaired where the usual childish tattoos of red hearts or winged fairies were replaced with pictures in sign language, which for many deaf people is their main means of communication with others. At the bird-watching sites, the guides’ explanations were accompanied with translation into sign language. Children were fascinated as the story teller’s enchanting tales were recounted also in sign language.
At the painting site, everybody was invited to try painting by mouth or with a rigid glove, similar to the circumstances of people whose hand movements are severely limited. A large board displayed the many and varied works that were produced. Prominent among these was the work of Eli Ashori, a physically disabled man who chose to paint child in a wheelchair. He is an amateur painter who was delighted in being able to link up his love for art with the opportunity to arouse social awareness about people with special needs.
The Hula Lake Park is considered one the most important birdwatching sites in the world. At different seasons it hosts cranes, storks, pelicans, ducks, raptors and many water birds. But it’s not just the birds that turn this place into a paradise for nature lovers. There are also an extensive botanical garden and a wide variety of animals, such as swamp cats, nutrias and jackals. The site can be visited on bicycles, golf carts or in a hidden wagon harnessed to a tractor.
KKL-JNF pioneered the site’s establishment in the ‘90s and still today plays a main role in its development, with the help of donations from its friends around the world, including Canada, Australia, the USA, South Africa, Switzerland and Germany as well as the IDB Fund in Israel.
It’s no accident that the Hula Lake Park was chosen to host the day of
activities for people with special needs. A high level of
accessibility has been achieved at the site, with easy access paths and
the option of reaching the birdwatching points in one’s own car, or by
the internal transportation network, and with explanations that are
audio-visual. Plus, of course, there are plenty of parking spaces and
the accessible restrooms are an important addition to the site’s
overall accessibility for people with disabilities.
“At the Hula Lake Park people with special needs are able to get
around, enjoy, experience, and – most important of all – be part of the
general public,” says Dr. Revital Savirsky
, director of the Access
Israel organization in the north.
KKL-JNF collaborates with Access Israel in many activities all round
the country. These include setting up accessible picnic spots with the
requisite parking, paths, benches and even barbecue areas for use by
the wheelchair-bound. In many of KKL-JNF’s forests, there is specially
adapted play equipment for the disabled.Rami Benyamini
, one of the founders of Access Israel, sums up: “In
KKL-JNF we have found tremendous awareness, sensitivity and
understanding for people with special needs. And the results are
definitely felt out in the field, where the disabled can now feel they
are an equal part of the public.”
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