Crossing barriers

An ad hoc group of Jerusalemites is working with municipal authorities to overcome literal and bureaucratic obstacles for the physically challenged.

Crossing Barriers 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Crossing Barriers 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Imagine that a trip to your local supermarket was less a routine task than a potentially life-threatening trek into the unknown. Or think what it would be like if every time you wanted to cross the street outside your home, you’d be putting your life in someone else’s hands.
While that sounds extreme, this is a daily reality for many wheelchair and motorized scooter users in the capital. While many of us take for granted the ability to get around unimpeded, the physically challenged are confronted with a great number of obstacles in public space.
“I know it’s not a sexy topic and it doesn’t grab people so much, but this is an area in which we can make a real difference to people’s quality of life,” says Maxine Blendis, a resident of the German Colony. Although there are already groups like Bema’aglei Tzedek whose aim is to ensure accessibility for wheelchair and motorized scooter users in public spaces such as restaurants, Blendis realized there was also need for a watchdog over the streets themselves. Encouraged by Varda Linett, a social community worker in the municipality, Blendis sent a letter in 2006 to call fellow Jerusalem scooter users to unite. As a result, Negishut Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Accessibility), an action group with the aim of making the city’s streets more user-friendly, was formed in 2008.
Since then, the group has worked closely with city hall to improve ease of access for all.
“We’ve made great strides forward,” says Judith Gueta, a motorized scooter user from Nahlaot. Blendis agrees. “We now have a working relationship with the city of Jerusalem,” she says.
“After Varda received complaints from Judith and myself about the problems of accessibility in Jerusalem,” explains Blendis, “and after I was introduced to Lisi Moses Rosenberg, [a fellow German Colony resident and user of a folding scooter], Varda became the catalyst for our progress and introduced us to various people in the municipality. That’s when things really started to move forward.”
Another area in which trouble had been experienced was in reporting obstacles and poor city planning to the municipality. Now, following meetings and phone calls from Negishut Yerushalayim, the Jerusalem municipality is piloting a streamlined telephone and Internet system, complete with tracking numbers. Whereas previously complaints were handled by various people in a number of divisions, now all calls are fielded by the municipality’s hot line (106), as well as the Jerusalem Municipality website.
In addition to liaising with the authorities, the group is involved in grassroots efforts. Gueta has designed flyers and stickers to help raise awareness about both the situation and the positive changes in the municipality’s complaints procedure. These flyers have been printed and paid for by the municipality – another example of cohesion and successful work, says Gueta.Group members are then encouraged to place these non-adhesive notes that read “You blocked me!” on cars that are impeding the path of the physically challenged.
“We encourage people to report any difficulties they experience. That way, the municipality knows where problems are and can act,” says Blendis. She is quick to point out that the group doesn’t work against the municipality or put pressure on it. “We work with the authorities,” she says, adding, “Sometimes successfully, sometimes less so.”
The kind of problems faced by the group’s members are often simple but far-reaching in effect. For example, wheelchair and scooter users frequently have trouble crossing between sidewalks and streets. If a sidewalk has no ramp between it and the street in order to allow a smooth transition between the two, there are only limited options for the physically challenged. The same goes for islands in the middle of roads. If there is no ramp, they are all but inaccessible. Similarly, bus stops that take up most of the width of the sidewalk are a hindrance to be navigated around.
What’s more, “It’s not only the physically challenged who are affected. I’ve seen mothers pushing strollers and young disabled IDF veterans who are also endangered by having to go out in the busy streets,” Blendis points out.
Members of Negishut Yerushalayim are being proactive and work with the authorities to remove such obstacles.
By working with the authorities, the group has achieved some tangible success. For example, in some places, sidewalk crossings with no ramp have been removed.
When asked about the willingness of the municipality to facilitate change, Gueta reasons that “We believe in cooperation. It is important to note that we are working with the Jerusalem Municipality.” Blendis agrees, “While there are still changes to be made, there are good people who want to help us. We hope to make a difference, and we remain hopeful.”
“There is a deadline that the municipality has set itself in order to respond to complaints, and we can follow our complaints on the Internet using the tracking numbers we are given. This is a great improvement,” adds Moses Rosenberg.
“We understand that Jerusalem’s streets will never be as wide as Paris’s or London’s, ” concedes Gueta. “But when a sidewalk becomes impassable because a bus stop has been placed in such a way as to block the entire width of the sidewalk, then it is our right to complain and we have the right to see things fixed.”
“We don’t want to complain too much [about the municipality]. In any case, things will never change that way. What we can do, though, is help them help us,” Blendis says. “But Jerusalem need not – and should not – be an obstacle course.”