Much has been made about Israel being the new land of opportunity. But for many
people with disabilities, it’s anything but.
People who walk, talk, hear,
see or perhaps think differently than the able-bodied Israeli “norm” have a long
way to go before they can share in Israel’s economic boom. Nearly 18% of adults
aged 20-64 have a disability, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. Of
those, many have jobs, go to school, and live among us. But many – too many –
still live in institutions, and even more live at home in poverty, without
access to adequate education or employment.
Israel has made great
progress in promoting the legal rights of people with disabilities in recent
Its basic laws ensure equal protection for all. Its 1988 special
education law (which since has been amended) guarantees every student the right
to education in “regular schools.” Israel’s Equal Rights of People with
Disabilities Law, enacted in 1998, is one of the world’s most comprehensive, and
requires, among other things, that all new buildings be accessible, although
approval is still pending for existing buildings and services. Many buses in
Israel are accessible, and the trains should be. There are some programs on TV
with sign-language interpreters, and there are plans for more street lights with
audio signals for blind pedestrians. Some efforts have been undertaken to move
people with disabilities out of institutions, but it isn’t enough.
sections of the Equal Rights Law have not yet been adopted, and of those that
have, many are still awaiting approval of their implementing
Israel’s situation is not unique; many laws are passed but
never implemented. Thus, despite the many accomplishments to promote the rights
of people with disabilities by the Netzivut (Commission on the Equal Rights of
People with Disabilities) as well as organizations such as Bizchut (Israel’s
Human Rights Center for People with Disabilities) and Al Manarah (Arab
Association for People with Disabilities), life for far too many Israelis with
disabilities is not easy.
Life is a challenge for many people with
disabilities I have met, and not because they are sick, helpless, or waiting for
handouts. On the contrary, they want to go to school and to work; they want to
have friends, fall in love and raise families. They want to live in your
neighborhoods, and contribute to Israeli society. But they face discrimination
in almost every aspect of their lives. And for those who don’t serve in the IDF,
or who are Arab, Beduin, haredi, HIV positive, or have a history of mental
illness or multiple disabilities, the situation is even worse.
indicator for future economic success in any society is access to education. A
2010 study found a direct relationship between higher education and wage levels
in Israel. But many students with disabilities are not receiving the education
they need to succeed. Some are left behind in special schools and classrooms, or
even worse, in institutions with no education at all. Others are included in
regular classrooms, but without the support they and their teachers
As a Jewish state, one would think that Israel’s education system
would be surpassed by none.
Indeed, 45 percent of all Israelis between 25
and 64 have some level of post-secondary education.
But for students with
disabilities, that is not the case. This year, I received a grant from the US
Department of Education to do a comparative study of inclusion of students with
disabilities in higher education in Israel and the US. An estimated 11% of
American college students have disabilities, although the number is likely
higher because colleges and universities are not required to report the number
of students with disabilities, and many disabilities are not easily
My study is not yet complete, but it appears that in Israel far
fewer students with disabilities are attending colleges and universities in
relation to their percentage of the general population. Why is that? Is it
because accommodations for the bagrut and psychometric exams are too difficult
to obtain, even if they are legally required? Is it because students with
disabilities don’t have the quality secondary education to graduate from
colleges or universities? Is it because the campuses, classrooms and computers
are not accessible to students with disabilities? Is it because too few
universities and colleges have effective centers to support such students? (That
situation may change soon with a new initiative by Bituah Leumi). Or is it
because of the widespread prejudice and parentalism that permeates Israeli
society about the limits rather than the potential of people with disabilities?
All these factors contribute to the low numbers of students with disabilities in
Israeli colleges and universities.
ISRAEL HAS many problems, and
resources are limited. I understand.
But it’s not just a question of
money; a change of attitude is required.
People with disabilities are
here to stay, and their numbers are growing.
Now is the time for Israel
to work not only to include students with disabilities in universities and
colleges, but also to accept them as people who have skills and the ability to
contribute to Israeli society.
Only then will people with disabilities
share in Israel’s bounty. And only then will Israelis without disabilities
benefit as we open our minds and hearts to people who are not looking for
tzedaka (charity) but for tzedek (justice) and the right to a place in the
classroom, the bima and the boardroom.
The writer is Meredith professor
of law at Syracuse University, and is currently on a two-year leave in
At Syracuse, she directs the Disability Law and Policy Program
and co-directs the SU Center on Human Policy, Law and Disability Studies. She is
this year’s recipient of the Distinguished Switzer Fellowship from the US
Department of Education, and is currently a visitor at Hebrew University Faculty