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Thousands of wheelchair-bound voters could be forced to stay home during Tuesday's general election after the Central Elections Committee failed to consider how disabled and homebound citizens would reach the polling stations, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
While legislation dictates that anybody living more than 20 km. from their local polling station is entitled to free transportation on Election Day, there is no law forcing the Central Elections Committee to ensure a similar transportation provision for the disabled, committee spokesman Giora Pordes explained to the Post on Tuesday.
However, those working with the disabled and representatives of the community said that for some elderly and disabled people even short distances to the polling stations were insurmountable without assistance.
"Perhaps if we'd been contacted by disabled representatives 90 days ago we could have found a way to allocate funds for such a service," Pordes said, adding that the Central Elections Committee had made extra efforts this year to ensure some 1,400 polling stations were disabled-friendly.
These efforts aside, for disabled people such as Gaby Zilber, 52, the question remains as to how he will reach his local polling station.
"It's only about half a kilometer from my home but unless someone takes me, I will not be able to get there," said Zilber, who suffered a stroke last year that left him unable to walk. "Until this happened to me, I was like everyone else and did not realize that the state completely ignores the needs of the disabled."
Zilber said he was almost ready to give up on voting when he heard earlier this week that the Yad Sarah volunteer organization, which runs a fleet of more than 30 disabled-friendly ambulances, had agreed to provide wheelchair-bound voters with a free ride to the polling stations nationwide on Election Day.
Yad Sarah's spokesman, David Rothner, told the Post that the organization had approached the Central Elections Committee to find funding for the free service but that its request for financial aid had been denied.
"This not a new problem," Rothner said. "It's simply a case of no one thinking about the needs of the disabled."
"Israel is supposed to be a democratic country, but under the current situation there are not equal rights for all its citizens," said Yuval Wagner, director and founder of the nonprofit Access Israel and himself a wheelchair-bound IDF veteran.
"The problem is much larger than just transportation, we are also talking about access to voting for all people with disabilities, including those who are hearing- or vision-impaired and other disabilities," he said.
Wagner said his organization had been lobbying the state for years to improve accessibility for the disabled at polling stations, as well as to advertise special electoral procedures to those with difficulties.
"There have been some changes, but only cosmetic," complained Wagner, adding that during the next parliamentary session Access Israel planned to lobby Knesset members to change the laws on the issue.
Vered Swid, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's adviser on social affairs, said meetings had been held before the current election campaign between the Central Elections Committee and the disabled community to pinpoint the problems and improve general accessibility, but the issue of transportation "just did not come up."
"Its too late to address this problem for next week's election," she said. "Unfortunately, there is a very large group of disabled people in Israel due to the country's many wars and we definitely need to find a solution to this problem for next time."
At the Central Elections Committee, Pordes also said that director-general Tamar Edri would push for change, but added that he was not hopeful this loophole could be resolved without legislation.
"We can ask for change, but we can't control whether it will happen," he said, adding that organizations such as Yad Sarah were in a much better position to demand that this problem is resolved by next time.
Yad Sarah's Rothner said: "We are not a political organization and are not involved in lobbying Knesset members to change the law... In any case, it should just be a given that disabled people struggle during every election to reach the polls, and its about time the state found a solution."