Maximum access

Disability’s not only about wheelchairs.

Maximum access (photo credit: Courtesy)
Maximum access
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Imagine feeling hungry for pizza. No problem, you go online and order one. Now imagine that you won’t hear the delivery man knock or ring – because you’re deaf.
That shouldn’t be a problem either. When you ordered, you typed in a request that the delivery man SMS you when he arrives. But the person who took your online order ignored the message.
The delivery man arrives. He knocks and rings for a long time, and finally takes your order back to the pizzeria. Waiting and getting hungrier, you go online again. You type a new message: I’m deaf, please get the delivery man to SMS me so I’ll know he’s here.
The message is passed on this time, but the delivery man doesn’t understand why he should text if he’s standing there, ringing and knocking. He goes back and forth three times before you finally get your pizza.
This actually happened to a deaf man recently, as told to Metro by architect and therapist Tal Zimnavoda, lecturer at Tel Aviv University’s Department of Occupational Therapy. Clearly, public awareness of disabled people’s needs is still in its first stages.
Zimnavoda’s course teaches the access needs of the disabled population to representatives from banks, health funds, hospitals, municipalities and other bodies providing vital services.
“Educating about disability is most effective when students ‘experience’ it at firsthand,” says Zimnavoda. “I once took a class on a bus trip, where each student was artificially disabled. Some wore a blindfold; some shut out all noise with earplugs; another sat in a borrowed wheelchair. The simple act of getting on and off a bus suddenly became incredibly complicated. The students kept saying, ‘Wow! I never imagined disabled people have it so hard!’” “As of 2011, 1.5 million Israelis are known to live with disabilities,” says Michele Shapiro, a doctor of occupational therapy from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Shapiro recently retired from 30 years of work at the Ra’anana-based Beit Issie Shapiro, Israel’s leading special needs organization. She is now continuing studies with Zimnavoda.
“There are different groups within the disabled category, each with different needs,” she notes. “People may have visible disabilities, like being wheelchairbound or blind, but there invisible disabilities too.
“Take sensory modulation disorder. People with this are bombarded with stressful stimuli all the time.
Typical people may not be bothered by walls painted bright yellow, or glaring revolving lights like those on police cars, or noisy gatherings, or being jostled. But any of those things can cause serious disturbance to person suffering from sensory disability.”
Such a person, Shapiro explains, lives with the jitters, always expecting the next shock. “They have very, very high stress levels that don’t let up.”
In Israel, the status quo for disabled access is considered good. Public service providers’ buildings must comply with basic accessibility requirements, such as disabled parking spaces, accessible paths, doors that aren’t too heavy to open, and elevators wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs. Businesses whose entrances have more than three steps and no ramps must have outdoor signs indicating so, by law. Curb cuts with textured surfaces are becoming mainstream, helping not only mothers pushing baby carriages, but people in wheelchairs and the blind. Audio signals at pedestrian crossings are common. Many bus lines play recorded messages indicating the current and next bus stop, helping the visually impaired – and even just the absentminded, like this reporter.
Innovative therapies for the disabled are becoming more available. Part of Shapiro’s work at Beit Issie involved the installation of a therapeutic Snoezelen room, which provides a low-stimulus environment.
Originally a recreational method from Holland, it was adapted for therapy, benefiting Alzheimer’s patients, children in pain, people with cognitive disabilities and others.
“The first Snoezelen room was built into Beit Issie in 1993,” says Shapiro, “and now there are another 400 such rooms in Israel.”
But according to Shapiro and Zimnavoda, much more needs to be done to help disabled Israelis achieve independence.
“I myself have sensory modular disorder,” says Shapiro. “I suffered terribly in school. In fact, my entire life has been a challenge. I know, on my own, how gaudy pictures on walls can disturb the mind; how hard it is to focus around noise and glaring overhead light. Not one school in Israel has modified its lighting. Not one has installed noise-absorbent flooring. Children with disabilities shouldn’t be put in situations where they can’t study.”
Disabled people have needs that never cross the typical person’s mind. Furniture in waiting rooms should be a different color from the room, to stand out distinctly from the walls. Chairs should have both arm and backrests. Official forms should be placed on low shelves where people in wheelchairs can get to them. Devices for magnifying labels in supermarkets should be available for the vision-impaired. Adult diapers should be available to passengers who physically can’t twist their bodies onto cramped airplane toilets (imagine being afraid to eat or drink for long hours because you can’t use the toilet). The list goes on.
Shapiro brings up a concept called universal design, where living spaces, both public and private, are constructed with the needs of all people in mind. Objects are made accessible to all users. She uses the image of a Torah scroll to illustrate.
“A Torah scroll is visually easy for the reader, because the text is black, on the parchment’s beige background.
But printed books have black text on a white background, which for some makes a visual contrast too stressful to stay with. Why not print books on a beige background? “Then there’s the issue of environmental noise. I remember how my late mother, who had Alzheimer’s disease, suffered in her assisted facility. They would wheel her down to communal activities in a brightly lit hall, where every noise bounced off the walls and floor.
These stressful stimuli can be eliminated by architects, engineers and even interior decorators working with universal design.”
Although nominally retired, Shapiro is still working to benefit special-needs people. “I have a lot of dreams ahead,” she says. “I’m going to be making changes as long as I live. Israeli society is trying to improve the rights of special-needs people, and accessibility is part of that equality.”
Shapiro’s next project is helping disabled people in their homes. “You have to find the young architects and designers - professionals who don’t have set ideas,” says the 63-year-old.
Disabled people need access to therapy, education, employment, transportation, housing and recreation. Readers interested in pursuing the subject may contact the bodies below:
Beit Issie Shapiro, Ra’anana: The Justice Ministry Commission for Equal Rights of Persons with Disabilities (in Hebrew), with articles on actual and proposed legislation: NetzivutNEW
Bizchut, The Israel Human Rights Center For People With Disabilities:
Tal Zimnavoda, Tel Aviv University: 050-202-3837. The university offers two courses on disabled accessibility, one for service providers and another on building design.