In my own write: Pride and prejudice

Aren’t disabled people just like us, only faced with greater challenges?

Noam Gershony in action during the men’s tennis singles wheelchair event in the Paralympics (photo credit: RAZI LIVNAT / MAARIV)
Noam Gershony in action during the men’s tennis singles wheelchair event in the Paralympics
(photo credit: RAZI LIVNAT / MAARIV)
Imagination is… the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared – J.K. Rowling
I feel sorry for the 40 percent of “able” Israelis who – according to a survey by the Commission for Equal Rights for Persons with Disabilities, reported in The Jerusalem Post of January 6 – don’t want their children studying in school or preschool with a disabled child; and for the 30% who get their knickers in a twist at the idea of living in a neighborhood that also has disabled residents.
I feel sorry for them because they too suffer from a serious disability called lack of imagination.
This internal blindness blocks them from seeing that “there but for the grace of God go I.” And indeed, while these people may at present be in good physical and mental health, it is not beyond the boundaries of chance that they could one day find themselves among Israel’s 1.6 million people who live with disabilities resulting from age, illness, accident or terror. Or they could find themselves the parents or grandparents of a disabled child.
How, one wonders, would they then react to being given the cold shoulder by more than a third of their fellow citizens who would simply prefer not to have them around, perhaps because they spoil the view? It is a lack of ability to visualize the above contingencies in any immediate, personal way that enables an attitude of “us” (those who are OK) and “them” (those who aren’t).
Then again, the range of human complexity being what it is, it is also possible that so many people’s expressed desire to keep the disabled out of their sight stems not from a lack of imagination, but from its opposite: a too-real, too-terrifying image of themselves suddenly catapulted into the ranks of those having special needs.
Their reaction might even result from some irrational suspicion of attracting the “evil eye,” or from a primitive, subconscious fear that disabled people are contagious and can infect others with their disabilities.
WHATEVER THE reason, the surprisingly large number of people in Israel who would not want to live near or study with a disabled person are surely to be pitied because in their narrow view of their surroundings they are missing out on a wealth of human experience and personal growth.
I recall a woman in my old Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot who was confined to a wheelchair but spent a lot of time out and about, regularly bringing food to a bunch of stray cats. When our paths crossed, we never exchanged anything more than a “boker tov,” but I remember her radiant smile as she greeted those she met.
It occurred to me that her disability notwithstanding, she seemed more joyful than many of those I saw hurrying about their daily business, and that there was a lesson there to be learned.
A NUMBER of Israeli cafes and restaurants employ people with special needs. Every time I pass our local branch of the Aroma chain and see the quiet concentration with which a young woman with Down Syndrome goes about her work, I remember how societies used to shut away those who were “different.” In our part of the world, many still do.
What a win-win situation this young employee and others like her represent across the board: She has a place where she ”belongs” – an elemental need we all share – and can hold her head up among the community of those who work for a living; the owner gains from a worker who does her job without wasting time in idle chat; the customers benefit from an employee who is dedicated to the task at hand, and Israeli society matures as it confronts these badly needed examples of acceptance.
BUT THERE is still a long way to go in dispelling hardened attitudes and prejudices.
A friend who spent many years working as a special education teacher here told me “the classic story about blind children who are taught to use a cane early to foster independence. Then when they step out into the street, all they hear is ‘misken’ [poor thing].”
In similar vein, a spirited woman who suffers from low vision and uses a cane shared an incident that occurred when she went to a grocery store and heard the proprietor ask someone to help “the miskena.”
She wasted no time in putting the man firmly in his place. “You can say a lot of things about me,” she retorted, “but one thing I am not is a miskena.”
An in-your-face TV ad promoting equality brings the country’s disabled population to the fore in highlighting the offensive nature of an exclusionary policy. Such a policy, where it exists, may not be overt but could be implemented by businesses simply making access difficult or impossible for disabled people.
In the ad, a prospective restaurant patron is asked: “Do you have any trouble seeing, hearing, or [any of the range of major disabilities]?” When the reply is negative, he is told: “You may now come in.”
The situation isn’t always black and white. While café and restaurant owners must show sensitivity to those with special needs, there is clearly a fine line in some cases; for example, where a customer suffering from a mental illness characterized by unpredictable and violent behavior could empty an establishment in short order.
THE GOAL may not be a simple one, but it is simply defined: To recognize disabled people as human beings no different from ourselves but with greater challenges, and where humanly possible to treat them as such.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, enacted by Congress in 1990, enshrined this philosophy in a wide-ranging civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability. Senator Tom Harkin, who authored the bill and was its chief sponsor in the Senate, delivered part of his introductory speech in sign language, saying it was so his deaf brother could understand.
Since the enactment of the US law, many countries have passed similar disability laws, shifting the focus from a social welfare approach to a human rights one. Similarly, the Knesset in 1998 passed the first three sections of a new Equal Rights for Persons with Disabilities Law, leaving seven additional sections for future legislation. How thoroughly the existing law has been implemented, however, is open to question.
I WOULD challenge the 40% of people in this country who are leery about their young or older children studying with a disabled counterpart to come up with a better method of instilling kindness, helpfulness, sensitivity, generosity, patience and tolerance in their offspring.
There are preschools in Israel that include specialneeds children in their regular classes. To ensure the health and success of the integrative process, these children are taken out of class two days a week to attend special programs in which their specific needs are addressed and their confidence and abilities boosted.
There is, I suppose, one condition for such integration to succeed, which is that the parents of the “regular” children themselves need to demonstrate those same values of kindness, helpfulness, sensitivity, generosity, patience and tolerance in order to complement in the home the education in humanity their offspring are receiving.
As I said, there is still a long way to go.