When the war in Ukraine broke out just over a year ago, Israeli nonprofit Access Israel and its collaborative partner, Accessibility Accelerator, sprung into action.
The Israel NGO, which addresses issues of disabilities access and inclusion worldwide, quickly realized that the estimated 2.7 million people with disabilities in Ukraine and the elderly would have an especially difficult time fleeing the war zone and accessing necessary services. Train stations, shelters and vehicles and information in general are often not accessible.
Access Israel CEO Michal Rimon recounts, “I got a call on Shabbat from a blind woman in desperate need of dialysis who was on a train to Lviv with her elderly mother. Due to bombings, the train changed course and was going to Chelm. No one knew she was coming. So she turned to me. I made some calls and was able to help her but I realized that there is a need to help these people. If I had a vest – it would make it simple to start to get help.”
“I got a call on Shabbat from a blind woman in desperate need of dialysis who was on a train to Lviv with her elderly mother. Due to bombings, the train changed course and was going to Chelm."Access Israel CEO Michal Rimon
Within days, Access Israel created the Purple Vest Mission and spent three weeks at the Poland/Ukraine border assisting refugees with disabilities. While the initial goal was to provide accessible solutions for those experiencing difficulties in the Ukraine, their larger mission is to raise global awareness to the importance of inclusive, accessible preparedness in times of emergency.
Access Israel has partnered with the Nippon Foundation to provide support for disabled people and their families who wish to or have evacuated from Ukraine to neighboring countries. They also provide accessible humanitarian aid to people with disabilities and to the elderly who choose to stay in Ukraine.
“The Nippon Foundation contacted us and offered six months of funding, which we made last for eight months,” Rimon reports.
The idea for the Purple Vest campaign came in large part from the established practices of buildings worldwide – from the Roman Coliseum to Manhattan’s Empire State Building – lighting up in purple on December 3, the UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities.
To date, the Purple Vest Mission has evacuated more than 4,000 people with disabilities, elderly and their families and provided humanitarian aid to an additional 10,000. Access Israel and the Purple Vest’s efforts continue in Ukraine, Turkey and throughout the world. While Rimon is proud of her organization’s work, she notes that they have learned some important, eye-opening lessons that can better help countries prepare for future emergencies.
James Lassner, executive director of Accessibility Accelerator, who with his wife has served at the Poland/Ukraine border, elaborates, “We have rescued and rehoused thousands of people with disabilities from horrors of the past year in Ukraine and continue to so. As forward global thinkers, we are proceeding with individual and corporate Purple Vest Mission training to ensure that hopefully we can assist in evacuation and before and if necessary during and after disaster [hurricanes, war, etc.] strikes,”
There are much larger ideas here, Rimon says.
Looking in the mirror
“First, we need to look in the mirror – we shouldn’t just talk about over there. We need to remember next time it could be us. Second, we need to not just hear, we need to listen to what the people are asking and telling and make the needed adjustments. Third, we need not reinvent the wheel. There are amazing people doing great things but we need to help each other fine tune it. As an example, there was a plan in place to transport the people of Ukraine, but when they stopped 2 km. from their destination, they didn’t think about how people with disabilities and the elderly would walk the final 2 km. And fourth, we need to connect the dots. We need to continue connecting people, like the Ukrainian person who was relocated to Norway. We connected him to an Israeli there who came by to bring a cake and a warm hug.”
The organization is continuing in its efforts at the Poland/Ukraine border and will return after Passover to continue in-person work. In addition, Rimon is offering a three-part online Purple Vest Training Course starting March 15 for people around the world who are interested in acquiring skills to assist the elderly and people with disabilities in the event of an emergency or severe weather.
“More than 100 people from Ukraine, Turkey, Africa and other parts of the world are signed up,” Rimon reports. “We want them to be the first ones there to know how to assist.”
ACCESS ISRAEL and Accessibility Accelerator were recently recognized for their work in Ukraine and for their Purple Vest Mission with a Zero Project Special Award at the February 2023 the Zero Project Conference at the UN building in Vienna. The Zero Project works to promote a world with zero barriers. The work to find and share solutions that improve the daily lives and legal rights of all persons with disabilities.
“We knew we were going to be one of the 70 organizations honored for best practices,” offers Rimon, who admits she was both proud and a little uncomfortable to be singled out. “After all of the awards were given, a special award in the shape of a purple vest was created for us. They understood the importance of spreading the word and getting people to sign on to this campaign. When they called me to the stage, part of me felt uncomfortable, but the reaction by the people who were inspired remind us that you can’t sit aside – it was worth it.”
Rimon, who is a graduate of Manhattan’s Ramaz School, continues to be inspired by her teacher, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein.
“When I was a student, he took us to the UN to stand up for [refusenik Natan] Sharansky. He taught us to do good, stand up for others, not sit aside and be our brother’s keeper.
“I am glad Purple Vest has been an inspiration internationally.”