Moving ahead

Reforms to Israel's Equal Rights Law are opening doors for Jerusalem's physically disabled.

In the 1990s, members of Israel's physically disabled community initiated a protest movement to demand increased state benefits. They did get some benefits and, along the way, they won recognition from the general public as well. Empowered by the precedent set by the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990), activists believed that the time was right for Israel to formulate its own legislation addressing the unique needs of its physically, sensory, mentally and psychologically impaired citizens. In 1995, Bizchut, the Israel Human Rights Center for People With Disabilities, grabbed the spotlight and submitted to the Knesset a draft of the Equal Rights Law for People with Disabilities. The overall mission of the law was "to ensure the inclusion of people with disabilities into the communal life of the broader society and their partnership with that society in all areas of life." The law intends to end the discrimination experienced by disabled people in various forms, from unemployment through inaccessible public places, peripheral living placements to inadequate specialized schools and services. Bizchut believes that if the segregated frameworks collapsed, the increased interaction would over time dispel stereotypes and stigmas held by each group. The Knesset draft passed its first reading in March 1996, several articles of the draft were passed in February 1998 and the Equal Rights Law for People With Disabilities came into effect in January 1999. The law includes a delineation of fundamental principles of equality, human dignity and active participation in society; prohibition of discrimination in hiring and in the workplace; the right to accessible public transportation; and the creation of a commission charged with advancing the rights of the disabled and enforcing the Equal Rights Law. In 2000, additional articles were reintroduced to the law, to cover accessibility; housing in the community and personal assistance; education; culture, leisure and sport; the court system; and special needs. Finally, in March of this year, what many consider the most revolutionary proviso of the Equal Rights Law the accessibility article passed its third reading. Now, according to law, all places and services open to the public, whether under the administration of the state, public authorities or private bodies, must be accessible to people with all forms of disabilities physical, sensory, mental, cognitive, and developmental. "The State of Israel is making an unequivocal statement that it recognizes the right of the disabled to receive service in an equal and respectful manner, so that they are not dependent on others to perform routine activities like boarding a bus or an elevator," says Bizchut spokesperson Oren Ganor. Ganor adds, "This is the landscape to best bring about social change when you see that someone in a wheelchair gets by just like everyone else without anyone's help or mercy then the treatment of him will be more respectful and there will be an understanding that he is like everyone else, except for his mobility problem." MK Shaul Yahalom (NRP), who was actively involved in advancing the law, adds, "This article is comprehensive, serious and revolutionary because it obligates not only the public sector but the private sector as well... "There won't be anything in Israel that won't be accessible. A person with a disability will be able to conduct his life in a full manner in all aspects of life," Ganor declares. Implementation of the law will cost nearly NIS 2.5 billion, Yahalom estimates. Overseeing the implementation of the article and the Equal Rights Law in general is the Equal Rights Commission for People with Disabilities, a Justice Ministry body. All government ministries and bodies have been instructed to establish special committees charged with the task of drafting regulations and detailing the modifications and arrangements needed to make institutions and services under their authority comply with the accessibility law. These are to be submitted to the Justice Minister by May 2006 and approved by November 2006. Although the details are not yet clear, the law does stipulate that the sites and services must be accessible from a physical, sensory, and psycho-social point of view. The implications are clear: elevators with Braille buttons and recorded texts; buses that provide information to people with hearing impairments or learning disabilities and lucid instructions for people with mental or psychological difficulties; reception counters adjusted to the height of people in wheelchairs, and much, much more. The law allows for up to 12 years to gradually make the necessary arrangements and modifications to public and private services, depending on the complexity and scope of the required changes. Institutions in the private sector have been given up to six years. Some places will be exempt, especially if a particular business owner can show that the changes impose a financial burden that would endanger his or her business. This new legislation includes a sanctions clause, too, making violation of the law a criminal offense. In addition, a person with a disability who successfully argues that his or her right "to move, to access, and to enjoy in a full manner" has been violated may be entitled to up to NIS 50,000 in compensation. Ganor concludes that, "The need exists there is discrimination in the field. A person who can't go to the theater, soccer stadium or elderly home because there is unsatisfactory accessibility remains behind and outside social life." For Ahiya Kamara, who has been hearing impaired since he was one year old, the change will be revolutionary. "Accessibility means that when possible there will always be some type of hearing assistance device or system in place, whether it's an amplification system, or the live projection of staff meeting notes onto a screen, or translation to sign language, or a special telephone, or fitting acoustics, or blinking lights when the doorbell rings." Kamara, who is CEO of Bekol, Israel's organization for the deaf and hard of hearing, notes that some changes have already been made in Jerusalem, even before the dates required by law. As an example, he notes that the Jerusalem Theater has installed an amplification system and the Khan Theater offers both an amplification system and subtitles during performances. "As a tough society, we have this need to see people as weak, but when we see these so-called weaker populations getting by on their own, then there is a wonderful feeling and this is the recipe for social change through equal and honorable means."