A group representing Israel's disabled community welcomed Sunday an initiative announced last week by the National Insurance Institute (NII) to allow more accessibility to ancient holy sights in Jerusalem's Old City.
Non-profit disabled rights organization Access Israel said it was delighted at the allocation of some NIS 10 million in funding from the NII and the Jerusalem Development Authority to make structural changes to the Old City, enabling a special pathway for those with motor disabilities and possibly a courtesy vehicle for the severely disabled, as well as utilizing new technology to open up the popular tourist and religious sites to the hearing and visually impaired.
"This is great news," commented Yuval Wagner, director and founder of Access Israel, himself a wheelchair-bound IDF veteran. "It is a project that will be beneficial for Israelis and for tourists, for those with disabilities and for those without."
Wagner, who has been campaigning for the past several years to raise public awareness about increasing accessibility in public places, added "we are not just talking about the obviously disabled; we are also talking about the elderly, parents with kids in a stroller, and sick people with various conditions.
"Improving accessibility in these kinds of places will allow all these people to enjoy the sights, not to mention all the friends and family members that usually accompany them.
"This is an investment in Israel's tourism and will greatly improve both Jerusalem's and Israel's image worldwide."
Wagner also said the organization had been extremely active in the past few weeks, trying to ensure that the numerous Succot events being held this week are also disabled-accessible.
"More activities than ever before have taken this into account this year," he said, pointing out that events suitable for people with disabilities are listed on the organization's Web site (www.aisrael.org ).
"Accessibility for people with disabilities is not a given in our society," commented NII Director-General Esther Dominissini. "However, the NII is working to change that reality and has already invested millions of shekels in numerous projects across Israel.
"I hope that the new project in Jerusalem, together with the Jerusalem Development Authority, will further the cause and allow complete access to tourists and Israelis with disabilities."
According to information from the NII, the initiative will include construction at the Jaffa Gate, the main gateway into the Old City, to allow those in wheelchairs to enter more easily, a special pathway for the disabled around the Jewish, Muslim and Christian quarters and possibly a courtesy vehicle for those more severely disabled. It will also provide special technology to allow the hearing- and visually-impaired a chance to experience museums and archeological sights in the Jewish quarter.
Meanwhile, the Israel Union for Environment Defense condemned the Municipality of Ra'anana on Sunday for announcing last week that a section of its public park featuring a playground for children with disabilities will now have an entry fee.
Tzipi Iser Itzik explained to The Jerusalem Post that until recently all non-Ra'anana residents were charged an entry fee to the public park, but after years of legal battles and a change in the law the city is no longer able to charge for entry.
Instead, she said, the municipality announced it will charge for just one specific section.
"I have no idea how they will do such a thing, and I think it's very sad that children with disabilities will be targeted like this," said Iser Itzik.
Calls to the Ra'anana Municipality were not returned Sunday.