The world from a wheelchair

As I struggled to pass a 3-cm-high step without tipping myself over, the people of Israel around me mostly busied themselves with their phones

THE WRITER learns firsthand how those who are disabled and confined to a wheelchair function in everyday life, accompanied by Ophir Eytan (photo credit: YOSSI ALONI)
THE WRITER learns firsthand how those who are disabled and confined to a wheelchair function in everyday life, accompanied by Ophir Eytan
(photo credit: YOSSI ALONI)
 When I set out to examine how those who are disabled and confined to a wheelchair feel as they function during everyday life, I knew I was being slightly untrue to the terms “disabled” and “accessibility.”
To be disabled does not, after all, begin and end with being forced to move around in a wheelchair, and accessibility is meant to encompass a wider scope of disabilities, including those that are not clearly seen by others.
Yet I thought it would be easier to examine how the average Israeli street responds to a type of disability that is very clear – that of being forced to move around in a wheelchair. 
Joining me for this difficult morning was 48-year-old Ophir Eytan, the father of two charming children. Ophir became confined to a wheelchair because of a medical procedure, and overnight his life turned upside down.
To be mobile, he is forced to use an electric wheelchair, which he had to fight the medical establishment to attain. The regulations the Health Ministry formulated state that only those who are paralyzed in all four limbs are allowed to use an electric wheelchair. Until he underwent shoulder surgery and was able to get the much needed document, Ophir had to use a non-electric version, the sort one has to use one’s hands to move around with. This is the one he brought me to try on this morning. 
We were joined by his partner of the last 15 years, Tiran Hamtazni, also a father of two children, who serves as his helper with great devotion. 
Taking his electric wheelchair, Ophir paved the way as I struggled to ascend the steep decline. Those who passed me by during the busy morning hours might have noticed my plight, but they did not offer their help.
It is possible they were simply embarrassed and didn’t know if they should step in and offer aid or should only observe me. Only now do I understand that I, too, was in similar situations in the past as a fully functioning person. 
Ophir let me know I should brace myself for aching arms. In the past, before he got an electric wheelchair, he had to reach the healthcare service provider closest to his home. The street was steep, and he would arrive short of breath and drenched in sweat each and every time. 
Only when I yielded and asked for Tiran’s help were we able to actually visit some shops. Some are accessible to handicapped people, but many are not. Some have a small step, which is an easy enough thing to cross if one is able to walk like the elegant gazelle, but for me, now, it was an insurmountable barrier. Only a few have the special ramp required to enable a person in a wheelchair to enter the store. 
I once again needed to ask Tiran for help. The store owner apologized, and I marked another checklist. 
Mission Impossible 
Mission: Exit the mall 
Method: Planning and execution 
Result: Failure 
The exit from the mall is designed in a slope, an easy enough exit for healthy people and those who have electric wheelchairs, but for me it proved to be impossible.
Far from being out of shape, I work out three times a week in the TRX method. I was unable to complete the mission, due to a design flaw. To exit, I needed to find an angle that would ensure I wouldn’t slam myself against the semi-open door or hit the handrail.
I was frustrated and thought my lack of experience was taking its toll. Ophir assured me this happens even to well-seasoned people in wheelchairs. Unless one has a good friend to help or is using an electric wheelchair, it is impossible to exit the mall alone without grinding your hands away.
It is not an easy thing to push 55 kg., and Ophir’s helping friend showed me that his hands now have red marks from the effort. So do mine. I was beginning to feel waves of exhaustion rushing all over me. 
This is where I should note that my own wheelchair was lightweight; others need to face heavier and clunkier models. 
The curious thing about Ophir is how well he handles this difficult struggle. Not just the struggle of a formerly healthy man who became handicapped, but also his struggle with Israeli bureaucracy, which can be maddening. 
A few years ago he had to face eight months of being confined to a hospital ward because the state was slow in providing him with the permits to make his house accessible to the wheelchair. Yet he remains cheerful, determined to turn these lemons into lemonades and win this war. 
Public transportation
Before we went to experience firsthand one of the busiest streets in Tel Aviv, Ophir told me that there are almost no accessible intercity buses, and few cabs are able to host disabled passengers. Plane flights do not offer any way to reach the bathroom during flights, making long flights impossible. 
We decided to take bus No. 5, and while it is a good thing the zone meant for disabled people is now clearly marked, it is odd no one thought to protect it from the hot sun or cold rain. A man said to me: “They” – the people who are responsible for public transportation here – “don’t think about the needs of the healthy people; you expect them to regard the disabled?” Yet the healthy can at least sit in the station and enjoy some shade; I could not even do that. 
The bus driver stopped at the exact right spot and got out of the bus himself to help me enter it. I tip my hat to him because such a high level of service is not to be taken for granted. Ophir has had the bad luck of meeting bus drivers who expected his helper to manage on his own. Just so you should know, the electric wheelchair, the one with the motor, weighs 100 kg, the insurance on it is NIS 12,000 per year, and the state allowance is roughly NIS 4,000.
And in case someone who reads this uses a handicapped parking place every so often, you are taking up a vital parking spot. Perhaps you do so in ignorance, but such parking places are essential to those who, unlike you, can’t walk. If you park your own car over the dotted lines used in the handicapped spaces, you are preventing people in wheelchairs from exiting or entering their own cars. So please, stop. 
Careful, a step 
We decided to take a brief rest after the scary experience I had crossing a busy street. Because there was no room in the pedestrian zone in the middle of the crossing for my wheelchair, I had to place one wheel on the busy road, taking the risk of being hit by a car. When I struggled to pass a three-centimeter-high step without tipping myself over, the people around me mostly busied themselves with their phones. 
Such an ordeal requires some coffee as compensation, but the coffee shop we found has a small step which prevents me from accessing the counter and placing an order. I lost my nerve, but Ophir, who is used to this, remained calm, and we placed our orders by shouting to the counter what we would like to have.
It is hard to move around in a wheelchair, and even harder to squeeze into an empty table when you must pass through other diners who do not even dream of helping by just moving their own bags or chairs to allow me through. I decided not to ask them for help and not to simply get up and walk to my seat, as that would have alarmed them in the extreme.
I later found out that the bathroon meant for handicapped people, a service not all restaurants even offer, was not accessible. Once again, it was a matter of a small but insurmountable step blocking the way.
Have you ever tried to do your grocery shopping using a wheelchair? Even if the cash register is easily accessible, what about the shopping cart?
In the Maldives there is a beach meant to serve people who are disabled. Can you think of such a beach in the Middle East? Ophir and I try to think: Perhaps in Egypt? Once again, to go down to the beach, one has to pass stairs. 
Not all is so bleak. On this journey, Tovah from the Elwyn Foundation was with me. The foundation had been in operation for three decades and helps people who are disabled to find work.
Tovah helps Ophir to seek a new place of work. Most offices are not designed to be accessible to handicapped people, and the wheelchair is large. For those who don’t understand, in his last place of work Ophir was unable to sit comfortably, and he is not supposed to spend long stretches of time without moving, just as a healthy person doesn’t sit at the desk for the whole day but gets up once in a while.
Yet they are both optimistic, and so am I when I listen to Elwyn’s chief operating officer, Margalit Piller. 
“We help in the process of gaining cognitive and physical tools,” she said, “and we work closely with institutions such as the Hadassah-University Medical Center, the Joint, as well as the Justice Ministry to create a legal tool kit to help people who are disabled to claim their rights, with a focus on helping possible job providers to make their offices accessible to those who are disabled.” 
I am keeping my fingers crossed so that Ophir will find a place worthy of his many and wonderful skills. In the meantime, Ophir and Tiran showed me pictures of the children and told me of their trip to Istanbul. Not only did the Turks allow them to go ahead and pass healthy people in line, the accessibility was much better than it is here.
Before we parted, I got up from my wheelchair and allowed the others in the coffee shop to see a “miracle.” We made some jokes about it, but the reality was I was able to take a cab home, and Ophir and Tiran were left to handle doing even the most simple everyday tasks on their own.
Unless one has the upper-body strength of an Olympic athlete, it is nearly impossible to use a motorless
wheelchair without collapsing. And unless one is wealthy enough to hire help, the most basic actions needed to function, such as buying food, become nearly impossible. 
It is important to remember that not all people who are handicapped have an issue others can easily see, and to be handicapped doesn’t always mean needing a wheelchair. It is about time we start looking up from our mobile phones and show more consideration to those around us.