Elaine Pomerantz has a wealth of stories about the trials and tribulations of negotiating her motorized wheelchair around the streets of Jerusalem. Some of her tales are borderline humorous, focusing on the inaccessibility of public buildings or places of entertainment, and some are quite disturbing, telling of apathy toward her frustrating situation. But there is one recent memory that sums up clearly the attitude of many toward the disabled community.
"Not so long ago, I was waiting for a friend on the street in front of a particular store," recalls the US immigrant, who was crippled by polio as a child. "A person came over to me and tried to put money into my hands. He thought that because I was in a wheelchair, I must be poor and live on handouts. It's sad, but many people here think like that, that the disabled should be pitied or are terribly unfortunate."
Pomerantz has a master's degree in rehabilitation counseling and is a regular volunteer for Yad Sarah, which provides the elderly and disabled with a wide variety of services and equipment. And while she commends the attitude of hessed, or charity, that exists in this country, she is fiercely independent and wants to be seen that way by everyone else, too.
"I will no longer allow people to carry me up stairs into restaurants," continues the 40-something woman, who describes herself as an activist involved in challenging public misconceptions about the disabled. "I've been dropped one too many times and refuse to be degraded that way anymore."
Pomerantz is only one of the country's 1.36 million disabled, who are forced to deal with a whole range of physical and mental barriers preventing them from joining in day-to-day activities that most people take for granted.
"In Israel, there are two big issues facing the disabled community," comments Yuval Wagner, director and founder of Access Israel, a non-profit group that advocates the rights of the disabled. "Firstly, there needs to be an understanding that we are talking first and foremost about people - albeit people with disabilities, but people all the same. The other issue here is accessibility, and the main solution to that is, again, raising awareness."
Wagner, a wheelchair-bound IDF veteran, uses the example of a current promotion by cellphone company Pelephone, which offers discount tickets to a series of summer concerts in Tel Aviv.
"It is inviting the whole nation to participate," he says. "The hearing-impaired, disabled walker or those who are wheelchair-bound should have an equal right to join in this event, too, but because there are no special tickets allocated to them and no special parking, they just can't."
He claims that in countries like the US, concert or sport venues usually designate a certain number of tickets to the disabled.
Not so here, says Wagner, adding, "It all boils down to a lack of awareness."
ACCORDING TO figures published last December by the Justice Ministry-run Commission for Equal Rights of People with Disabilities, 24 percent of Israelis see themselves as disabled. While most of them are older than 75 (60%), more than 700,000 are of working age (20-64) and children account for 15%. Of the problems affecting those with disabilities, the commission found that 31% suffer from mental illness, 25% from diseases and 20% from retardation; 6% and 2% reported disabilities in seeing and hearing.
"Disabled people are very often seen as charity cases," says Dr. Dina Feldman, the government-appointed commissioner for Equal Rights of People with Disabilities. "[They] are mainly seen as a group that needs help or does not contribute fully to society."
But, she says, the situation is slowly changing.
A turning point for the disabled came in 1998, when the initial version of the Equal Rights for People with Disabilities Law was passed. The law, which Feldman says is set to undergo some important changes and clarifications in the next few years, outlines four areas: the right of a person with disabilities to equality, human dignity and active participation in society; the prohibition of discrimination against people with disabilities in work situations, and directions to modify the work place for disabled employees; the right of people with disabilities to access public transportation; and the appointment of an equal rights commissioner.
More recently, Israel signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which calls for those countries that signed "to ensure that persons with disabilities finally enjoy all the rights and responsibilities that others in society take for granted."
Among the first moves made by the government after ratifying the treaty was an agreement reached earlier this month between the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services and the Burton Blatt Institute of Syracuse University, one of the world's leading research centers, to conduct in-depth research on the status and conditions of the country's disabled and suggest concrete ways to advance the civic, economic and social participation of persons with disabilities in all spheres of society.
"Israel only started passing this kind of legislation in the 1990s," Feldman points out. "But we already have some fairly advanced laws demanding disabled people be better integrated into society. It is important to look at the rest of the world, too, and in terms of general perceptions among the [able-bodied] public, we are no different from anywhere else."
She adds that less than 10 years ago, only the Health Ministry and the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services were involved in advocating change for the disabled community, whereas today, with the help of these new laws, many other ministries are obliged to consider the needs of the disabled in all their future plans.
However, Feldman admits that while on a government level the situation is slowly being rectified, the impact of this legislation will take one or two more generations before it filters down to the man on the street, changing society's attitudes and allowing the disabled public to enjoy the change.
"I don't want to build a too-idyllic picture of the situation, especially because there are still those disabled people fighting to find employment or gain access to their local mall or place of entertainment, but on a macro level, there are really big changes. Both the private sector and the government are really starting to invest in and notice the power of the disabled population," she says.
BUT DISABLED people and activists fighting on their behalf say that it is taking far too long to close the gap between legislation and social perceptions.
"People generally don't stare at me when I am out in the street," says Zehava Arbel, a US immigrant and mother of three who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 15 years ago. "But sometimes they treat me like I'm not there at all."
Wheelchair-reliant for the past three years, she recalls a visit not too long ago to her local hospital: "I was waiting in line to see the doctor, and a woman just moved me out of the way. I was so upset, I started seeing red. It happened in the pharmacy as well. It's like I am some sort of inanimate object and have no brain or feelings."
Arbel also gripes about a recent parent-teacher meeting at her daughter's school, which, due to simple shortsightedness, left her outside in the cold.
"There was construction work going on, and the ramps were temporarily out of order," she explains. "There are about 30 steps into the building, and I simply could not get inside. I had to sit outside for 45 minutes while my husband met the teacher.
"Every day, everywhere I go, I have to check in advance that a place is wheelchair-accessible, that ramps are not too steep, that the bathrooms are big enough - but even with a lot of organization, there are some places that I just can't go to."
"Israel has wonderful laws on the books, but enforcing them or getting them to have any meaning is the real problem," says Pomerantz.
She gives the example of the public transportation section of the disability law. When it was passed, intracity buses were instructed to install a secure device to hold wheelchair-bound passengers in place as they traveled, but according to Pomerantz, not only did her local bus company fit a belt far "too flimsy" to be safe, it failed to train the bus drivers how to use it. And because parking restrictions are not diligently enforced, cars are regularly left illegally at bus stops, preventing disabled passengers from reaching the buses.
"I used to belong to a group that lobbied the bus companies to make changes," says Pomerantz. "We asked the companies to try to fix this problem, but all we got from them was, 'Yes, yes, we'll take care of it.' It's now been seven years, and nothing has changed. I simply refuse to travel by bus anymore."
"Have you ever heard the Israeli phrase 'rosh katan' [small-minded]?" asks Wagner. "That is exactly what we are talking about in many situations. When there is lack of awareness by big companies, it is likely to filter down into other areas of society, too."
WHILE LACK of awareness toward those with physical disabilities can be frustrating, it is likely even worse for the mentally retarded. Recently, a study commissioned by the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services found that more than one-third of the population believes those with severe mental disabilities pose a serious danger to society.
Furthermore, while 74% of the 750 people questioned thought that the mentally retarded should have the option to live in community-based hostels and group homes, only 51% agreed to such residences existing near their homes.
Minister of Welfare and Social Services Isaac Herzog says that he was not surprised by the public's response in the survey, which was published to coincide with a ministry-sponsored three-day conference examining the issue.
"Israel is no different than any other society," he says. "Unfortunately people have a mental block when it comes to the disabled community, and we just have to explain to people that we are all human beings.
"All of society should be involved in understanding and helping the disabled community. My goal is to stir up energy in this regard, but we already know that stories about the disabled are just not something that make front-page news."
While Wagner says that he was quite shocked by the study and almost does not believe the results are correct, he points out: "It's very understandable that people have these misconceptions. Most of their information probably comes from the movies. Whenever the newly crippled character first meets the doctor, he always has to ask, 'Can I have children?'
"It has created at least one stigma whereby most of the public believes anyone with spinal cord injuries cannot reproduce, when in reality it is totally untrue. We live in a society where people form their opinions from what they read or see on TV."
SO WHAT needs to be done to improve conditions? As a person only recently confined to a wheelchair, Arbel says it's all about exposure.
"Now I am looking at the world from a different angle," she says, adding that her own daughter told her recently that while her body might have changed, she is still the same person. "If all children are exposed to it, then they'll learn to understand better."
Wagner agrees. He acknowledges that a large part of the solution lies in education, and highlights a recent Access Israel project with sixth graders: "We talked to them about the disabled parking issue, and the children pointed out that parents always teach children not to steal, so why don't we 'teach our parents not to steal parking places.'"
Wagner says that the children put together a kit designed to teach other kids how to "educate" their parents not to steal disabled parking spots. He also mentions a program run by disabled athletes, who tour schools and show the students how they play basketball in wheelchairs.
"Throughout the game, each player tells his own personal story on how he became disabled, and at the end of the game, they invite the kids down to play with them," he says. "It's pretty amazing to watch and really breaks down walls and stigmas."
While the education system is certainly the key to increasing awareness and inclusion of the disabled public into the mainstream - and Feldman suggests even more integration of disabled students into regular schools - there is also much work to be done among the rest of society.
"There definitely needs to be greater dissemination of information in all public arenas," says Feldman, adding that her department has already submitted a proposal to the IDF to allow those with mild disabilities to be drafted. "There needs to be more access to those people within the workplace; they should be employed in both the public sector, where everyone can see them, and in the private sector, too."
"In the past seven years, awareness of the problems faced by the disabled has increased dramatically, but the real challenge now is to increase that knowledge even more and raise more awareness," says Wagner, who writes hundreds of letters each month to business-owners, trying to convince them to make their establishments accessible to the disabled.
"Forget the law, my goal is to convince them that making their place disabled-accessible will be an excellent investment for them financially," he says. "Not only will they increase their clientele, but they'll also gain extra points for having a good social image.
"We are talking about 1.5 million people here, and they have a lot of power. It is only now that people are beginning to realize their strength. We are definitely in a much better place than we were five years ago, but it is extremely important for me to highlight all the good things that many people achieve even with their disabilities; people are just not aware of that."
Research, then legislate
The international community has much to learn from Israel's approach to the disabled community, said Prof. Peter Blanck, chairman of the Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) of Syracuse University, one of the world's leading research centers for the advancement of persons with disabilities.
As with many countries faced with constant conflicts, Israel has a larger proportion of people with disabilities - more than 1.36 million - and during times of crisis, has proved itself capable of caring for them.
"Due to Israel's history of wars, there is a lot of focus on what to do for the disabled during times of emergency," said Blanck, who was here earlier this month to sign a cooperation agreement with Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog.
Blanck, who is Jewish and has worked here several times in the past, referred to the actions of the Home Front Command and many non-government organizations that helped evacuate the disabled from the North during the Second Lebanon War last summer and continued to provide those who could not leave their homes with food, medication and services.
"The US has a lot to learn from Israel in the area of emergency preparedness during times of war or natural crisis," he said, adding that the US government has recently commissioned the center to investigate America's treatment of the disabled following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina two years ago.
"We have already learned that it was extremely difficult for people with disabilities to manage, and we know that the US needs to be much more organized in that regard."
Under the agreement, the center plans to establish two units here to begin immediately assessing the challenges faced by the country's disabled and advising the government on a legislative path.
"There is lots of miscommunication and misconception around disabled people - not just in Israel, but also in the US," Blanck said. "Our goal is to raise awareness of the plight of people with disabilities, and hopefully our surveys will be able to assess what policies are working or not working."
The research team - which will include professionals from the ministry, and local activists and disabled people - will actively address employment opportunities and accessibility for the disabled.
"Israel is one of the most advanced nations when it comes to legislating for the disabled community," commented Herzog after signing the contract with the university. "However, this community is growing and has increasing needs. [As a country,] we must keep up with these changes."
He said the aim of the joint venture is to share information, developments in the field and research on how to improve the general system.
"Israel needs to look at new processes and technological developments, and I think it is very encouraging for a ministry to be involved in an academic institution and think tank process," he said.
Blanck added that the move was also important because of Israel's recent commitment to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
"This agreement symbolizes [the decision] to roll up our sleeves and get this convention actually working," he said. "This is the first step to implementation of that treaty."
Among the positive programs that may be established by BBI is a "boot camp for war veterans with disabilities to teach them how to start their own businesses" - a plan currently being piloted in New York, Blanck said.
He also talked about the training programs the institute offers in the US to multinational companies such as Microsoft on how to implement corporate procedure regarding employees with disabilities.
"Israeli perceptions of the disabled are very similar to those in the US," Blanck said. "I have spent a lot of time trying to break down these myths, which in many ways are hampering the advancement of disabled people in society even more than the laws or lack of them."