'Where you sit often determines where you stand'

20 Jerusalem municipal workers explore city from a wheelchair to understand accessibility issues; “90% public space is not accessible.”

People in wheelchair 311 (photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
People in wheelchair 311
(photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
Twenty senior members of the municipality’s engineering and planning committees saw Jerusalem from a different point of view on Thursday: how the city looks and feels from a wheelchair. 
“Ninety percent of the public space in Jerusalem is not accessible,” said Dyonna Ginsburg, director of Bema’aglei Tzedek (“Circles of Justice”), a non-profit organization which advocates for accessibility and workers’ rights that organized the tour around the German Colony’s Emek Refaim.
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While the organization has given “disability tours” to groups of students, soldiers, and community members, this was the first time they were able to target the municipality. “It’s the first time we’re giving a tour to people who can do something major and systematic,” said Ginsburg. “They deal with these issues day in and day out, but we want to give people an emotional experience. There’s a saying that goes, 'Where you sit often determines where you stand.’”
The municipality is working on passing a law that would require all city buildings to be accessible by 2018. Since September, all new buildings, including residential buildings with six or more apartments, must be handicapped accessible to receive building permits. By 2014, the city hopes that all public transportation will be accessible.
“The law for equal rights says that there should be equal opportunities for everyone, whether they or disabled or not,” said Yael Marom-Avissar, the new director of the department of accessibility. Marom-Avissar’s position was created in April, under the direction of city engineer Shlomo Eshkol, to deal with accessibility issues in the city.
“Our plan will include public buildings, and in the next step commercial buildings and cultural buildings, so that every resident will be able to move about freely without their path being interrupted, the same way it’s done today in other cultured parts of the world,” said Eshkol. The issue strikes close to his heart, as an injury 40 years ago left him with a prosthesis below the knee on his right side. “I spent half of my life on wheels or with a cane, and that’s why it’s so important to me,” he said.
He noted that older neighborhoods and especially the Old City provided almost insurmountable challenges for people with disabilities. “Not everything has a solution, but there’s a lot that can be done,” he said. Currently Eshkol is focusing on streets, parks, and parking lots.
In addition to wheelchairs, some of the group walked with crutches or with noise-cancelling headphones or an eye mask, trying to experience different types of disabilities. Uneven sidewalks, a lack of ramps, cars blocking handicapped-accessible routes, and no auditory signals at crosswalks were just a few of the challenges the group faced. The half-kilometer route took more than an hour and a half to navigate.
 “If there’s engineering that makes things accessible for the public, it helps me at the end of the day make roads safer, because an aspect of making the roads safer is making them more usable,” said Diana Kogan, the manager of the Road Safety Department of Jerusalem. On the tour, narrow sidewalks forced her to use her wheelchair in the street, causing cars to stop behind her and creating “unsafe conditions,” she said.
One positive note in the city’s wide-ranging accessibility problems is the new bike path built parallel to Emek Refaim, which uses raised crosswalks to allow handicapped access to the sidewalks.
City Councilmember Laura Wharton (Meretz), who used to hold the special needs portfolio, praised the tour for opening the eyes of people involved in planning the city. “It’s really important to get people in the municipality to see what it’s like dealing with obstacles, both physical and literal, that people with disabilities feel in the street,” she said.
Bema'aglei Tzedek also runs the “Tav Hevrati” program, which certifies restaurants and cafes that are handicapped-accessible and practice fair employment projects. They recently celebrated the first “Tav Hevrati” street in Beer Sheva, a stretch of ten restaurants who all received the Tav Hevrati certification. About a third of Jerusalem restaurants and cafes carry the certification, a blue and white sticker that is usually displayed in the window.