President Reuven Rivlin poses with (from right) Nechama Rivlin, Roni Rottler, Shira Ruderman and MK Karen Elharar at a meeting devoted to citizens with disabilities..
(photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
A golden retriever was stretched out on the carpet at the feet of his owner, clinical social worker Guy Simchi, who is blind. Seated on the same sofa was a young woman communicating in sign language with someone across the room. Sitting in her wheelchair at the far end of the room was Yesh Atid MK Karen Elharar, who had convened the meeting of people with disabilities.
While Elharar had originally intended for the event to take place at the Knesset, President Reuven Rivlin insisted that it be held at the President’s Residence. He said it was the rightful place for such a meeting, especially as the meeting’s main purpose was to present him with a position paper on the leadership of people with disabilities in Israel.
The position paper, under the auspices of the Ruderman Family Foundation, was based on interviews from the relatively few people with disabilities who work in key positions in both paid and voluntary organizations.
Partners in the preparation of the position paper were Link 20, a global movement of young people with and without disabilities who work to promote social integration, and the Clinic for the Rights of People with Disabilities.
The Ruderman Family Foundation works in the United States and Israel to advance the social- and workforce-integration of people with disabilities, enabling them to be assessed on what they can do instead of what they can’t. Representatives of all three organizations were present as were most of the position paper’s interviewees.
It is customary for people to stand up when Rivlin enters the room and Simchi’s dog, being well-trained, stood up for him as well, remaining standing until Rivlin told everyone to sit.
Elharar said that there are simply not enough people with disabilities in positions in which they can demonstrate leadership. There are a few in the Knesset and some in the media, but in general, such people are being excluded instead of included.
“The public doesn’t understand that people with disabilities are not without resources,” said Rivlin, noting that physical disabilities are not an indication of lack of mental abilities.
Recalling the late MK Mordechai Virshubski, who served in the Knesset from 1977 to 1992 and who walked with a pronounced limp, Rivlin said that the former MK had made a valuable contribution to the Knesset – as have Elharar and the wheelchair-bound Ilan Gilon.
“Disabilities do not prevent people from succeeding in many spheres,” said Rivlin.
Acknowledging that there are a lot of good-hearted individuals who do not cast aside people with disabilities, Rivlin said that even these people often make the mistake of patronizing them.
“Don’t patronize them,” he said. “Let them cope with what they can’t do and respect them for what they can do.”
Shira Ruderman said that her family’s foundation works for people with every kind of disability “because we strongly believe in integration, equality, leadership and rights.”
The disabled should be receiving what they are entitled to and not have to rely on charity, she said.
Alluding to the relative absence of social interaction between able-bodied individuals and those with disabilities, she said that only 9% of the population actually know someone who is disabled.
In the US, she said, the foundation had been successful in getting more people with disabilities accepted into the entertainment industry, although there are still movie directors with preconceived biases. Even when characters are disabled, these directors often call on able-bodied actors to portray them.
What was more disturbing was the statistic she quoted for people shot by the police in the US. It is estimated that 60% of people killed or injured by police have some sort of disability, she said.
In Israel, she said, roughly one million people have disabilities, coming out to around one-eighth of the population.
Ruderman asked Rivlin to lead a dialogue between the general public and the disabled to foster greater awareness and understanding. She pointed out that Moses, the biblical leader of the Jewish people, had a speech impediment but that did not prevent him from leading the Children of Israel out of Egypt and out of slavery.
Lawyer Roni Rottler, one of the co-editors of the position paper, said that interviewees had been asked about their experiences, achievements and about the low points in their lives, so as to get a broad picture of what their day-to-day lives are like.
The conclusion was that there are too many stereotyped attitudes toward disabilities. Very few people with disabilities apply for top jobs because they know they will be rejected, she said. Attitudes tend to change for the better when people work alongside someone with disabilities.