Disabled rights group calls for equal access to Remembrance Day ceremonies

Access Israel, a nonprofit group that advocates the rights of Israel's estimated 150,000 disabled community, has called on politicians and organizers of official Remembrance Day ceremonies to improve access for disabled IDF veterans, the elderly and others with physical disabilities wanting to participate in national commemorations taking place Sunday night and Monday. According to Yuval Wagner, himself a disabled IDF veteran, wheelchair-bound individuals, the blind and the deaf, as well as many elderly citizens were simply cut out of Remembrance Day events. "Many of the parents of fallen soldiers who died in the Yom Kippur War or before are now in their golden years and find it difficult to attend the ceremonies, especially if they are taking place in cemeteries," Wagner told The Jerusalem Post. "There is not enough room for a wheelchair-bound person or someone with a walker to pass between the graves, there is usually no disabled parking for those who need it and the heavy traffic getting to and from the sites just makes it impossible." Wagner said the IAF helicopter he was flying during a training exercise 20 years ago malfunctioned and crashed. His squadron leader was killed and he was seriously injured. "I would do anything to be able to attend a remembrance ceremony for him [his squadron leader], but I simply can't go," lamented Wagner, adding that he had not been to a ceremony for many years due to accessibility issues and preferred to pay his respects to the fallen on a day that was not so busy. "[What's needed] for people like me to be able to fully participate in the events are specially designated parking spaces, alternative routes to the venues, seating for those who cannot stand for long periods of time, extra spaces for those in wheelchairs, accessible bathrooms and services for the hearing impaired," he said. "However, the most important thing is for places to advertise that they are accessible for the disabled." Access Israel wrote to several politicians last week, including Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh (Labor), Education Minister Yuli Tamir (Labor) and Ya'acov Edri (Kadima), head of the Ministerial Committee for Ceremonies and Symbols. In response to Access Israel's requests, the Defense Ministry said it planned to meet with Wagner to discuss ways to improve access to military monuments and cemeteries and believed that a working plan would be in position for the current year. "We take care of more than 50,000 disabled IDF veterans," said Benny Shainu, spokesman for Sneh at the ministry. "We believe that improving access for them is extremely important." Shainu said many of the large military cemeteries such as Kiryat Shaul in Tel Aviv, Mount Herzl in Jerusalem and the main military cemetery in Haifa all had designated parking spaces and other facilities for the disabled. "I know that the problem will not be solved for this year but next year we will be able to monitor how much the situation has progressed," said Wagner, who set up Access Israel eight years ago. "The reaction to our demands has been positive but there is still a lot of work to do." Wagner said he was hopeful a new law mandating that all public places be disabled accessible would finally go into effect this year. "All I want is for people with disabilities and their families to be able to enjoy life just like any other person in society," he said. Access Israel also maintains a Web site (www.aisrael.org) listing public places that are disabled accessible.