Social justice for people with disabilities

As we dismantle tents, celebrate new affordable housing initiatives, we should be courageous enough to stand up for those who can’t.

wheelchair 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski/The Jerusalem Post))
wheelchair 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski/The Jerusalem Post))
In June of 2011, a group of Israelis created a Facebook group to boycott the purchase of cottage cheese and dairy products due to their outrageous prices. After witnessing the drop of dairy prices and the introduction of competition into the market, the country became inspired to make a stand for social justice.
The boulevards and parks of major Israeli cities were lined with tents in protest for affordable housing. Israelis withdrew money from their bank accounts in protest against high banking fees. Families turned off their electricity for an hour to object to the electric company’s 10 percent increase of the cost of electricity. With each week, the list seemed to continue to grow, as, ultimately, 400,000 Israeli protesters rallied together and took to the streets demanding social justice and a more affordable cost of living.
However, in a country which mandates military service and, as a result, has many citizens who are injured and disabled in its defense, it surprises me that disability rights were not at the forefront of the country’s protests. How is it that the largest social justice movement in our country’s history managed to disregard the injustices that the Israeli disabled community faces daily?
Israel’s Equal Rights for Persons with Disabilities Law went into effect on January 1, 1999. Among other things, the law requires that public services and transportation and places of public accommodations and services, including private entities, must be accessible to people with disabilities. Unfortunately, while this law was passed twelve years ago, Israel is still a fairly inaccessible country to the disabled.
Three years ago, I made aliya from the United States to fulfill my Zionist dreams of living in and building the State of Israel. I made this daring move alone, and from the confines of a wheelchair. However, unfortunately, from the outset I have been confronted with the constant issue of inaccessibility.
Unlike other immigrants, I was unable to rely on the security of housing provided by an absorption center, because not one absorption center in the state of Israel is wheelchair accessible. As a result, I was forced to search for an accessible apartment, which is nearly impossible to find. Most apartment buildings in Israel have steps leading to their entrance, no elevator and bathrooms which are barely large enough for even an able-bodied person to use. In the end, I must live in a luxury apartment, which I nevertheless had to modify to be accessible, and I pay twice the rent of any of my friends.
For two-and-a-half years, I worked in a Jerusalem office which did not have an accessible bathroom. For each visit to the bathroom, I was required to go down 14 floors to a public bathroom, which was often too dirty to use or lacked toilet paper, soap and hand towels. On multiple occasions, I was forced to go across the street to the mall to use the restroom, a trip which at times took 45 minutes.
Additionally, most private entities providing public accommodations and services blatantly disregard Israel’s disability rights law and thereby discriminate against people with disabilities. Places of public accommodations and services include: places of entertainment, retirement homes, public gatherings, hospitals and clinics, accredited higher and adult education, museums, fields or locations designed for sports events, stores, including supermarkets exceeding a certain size, air, sea, train and bus terminals, post offices, religious centers, hotels, pools, restaurants serving more than 25 guests, etc. The unfortunate majority of restaurants, bars, hair and nail salons, coffee shops, synagogues and clothing stores have one to multiple barriers to accessibility for the disabled.
They either have steps leading to their entrance, narrow bathrooms or changing rooms, elevated seating, or too narrow an elevator (or no elevator).
Barriers such as these are tantamount to businesses posting a sign which reads, “Disabled people are not welcome here.”
The presence of inaccessibility regularly prevents me from attending events, prayer services and classes. I cannot “walk” down Dizengoff and enter whichever clothing store strikes me. In fact, I cannot enter most stores and restaurants in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem or any other city in Israel. I must refrain from drinking anything when outside my home, because, after living in Tel Aviv for nine months, I have found one kosher restaurant with an accessible restroom and only one other accessible restroom in the entire city, outside of the hospital and the occasional hotel.
One third of Jerusalem buses, many Tel Aviv buses and all intra-city buses are inaccessible to the disabled.
Of the buses which are accessible, the drivers very often refuse to allow me to board because they do not wish to spend the time and energy to pull close to the sidewalk and open the ramp. Taxis are predominantly inaccessible, and the few private accessible cab companies, which do exist, charge three times the cost of an average taxi and require all reservations to be 24 hours in advance.
Ninety percent of all public schools in Israel are inaccessible to children with disabilities. Many public buildings are inaccessible, including the Ministry of the Absorption in Jerusalem, which had to send an agent to my house after my aliya due to the building’s inaccessibility. Sidewalks are often unequipped with curb cuts and serve as illegal parking spots, thereby preventing anyone in a wheelchair (or with a stroller for that matter) from passing. As a result, I am regularly forced to traverse on the dangerous roadway.

In my opinion, discrimination such as this is a social injustice far greater than expensive cottage cheese or banking fees. Inaccessibility not only serves as a barrier to entry for disabled individuals, but also serves to disregard their human dignity and freedom.
As we dismantle the tents and celebrate the new affordable housing grants and initiatives, we should now demand social justice for our friends and family who have been injured defending our country or who were born less physically privileged than we are. If we, the Israeli people, are brave enough to live in tents for the sake of affordable living, we should be courageous and selfless enough to unite and refuse to shop, dine or support, in any way, places of public accommodations and services, which discriminate against the disabled. Together, we should stand up for those who can’t.