Israel must do better when it comes to invisible disability

Generally speaking, most Israelis don’t know much about disabilities, especially “invisible” disabilities.

Special needs children and volunteers from Kav Lachayim plant trees with KKL-JNF on Tu Bishvat. Yoav Devir, KKL-JNF (photo credit: KKL-JNF)
Special needs children and volunteers from Kav Lachayim plant trees with KKL-JNF on Tu Bishvat. Yoav Devir, KKL-JNF
(photo credit: KKL-JNF)
Waiting in a long line for a restaurant table pushes a two-year-old girl with special needs to her breaking point. Her parents can tell there’s a meltdown coming. The pleasant evening out as a family is quickly turning into a disaster.
Because their daughter has a governmentally-recognized status as a disabled person, the family should get priority in the queue. The parents decide to inform the restaurant of their right to skip the line.
This is exactly the situation that is intended for accommodations to people with special needs, right? But according to the father of the girl, instead his family was discriminated against due to his daughter’s disability.
Gili Peretz told local media that he went to a restaurant in Tiberias last Saturday evening. His daughter, who has severe autism, has a Teudat Necheh (Handicapped Certificate) which entitles her to skip lines in public places.
According to Peretz, the manager said, “She doesn’t look disabled to me. She’s not in a wheelchair.” After an argument, the Peretz family left the restaurant.
Because there is an ongoing investigation into both Peretz and the restaurant manager’s behavior, we should avoid passing judgment on the parties until we know exactly what happened.
Nevertheless, this incident speaks to the wider issues in Israeli society around disability education. Many Israeli business owners are not aware of their legal obligations towards people with disabilities and are unlikely to have in-depth knowledge of legislation protecting people with disabilities.
Generally speaking, most Israelis don’t know much about disabilities, especially “invisible” disabilities (intellectual or developmental disabilities that may not be noticeable at first glance).

Unless the child in question is in a wheelchair or otherwise visibly disabled, some Israelis may resist accommodations for children with special needs who look “normal.” They may dismiss behavior by children with special needs as simply “bad,” rather than understanding that it stems from a medical or mental condition.
As the father of two children with special needs, I understand how draining it can be to explain your child’s disability to others. Parents become exhausted from constantly explaining the significance of their child’s Teudat Necheh and the benefits their children are entitled to receive. As a society, when we see someone who is differently abled, we should not ask for an explanation from the person or their family about their condition.
Speaking about the incident, Peretz said, “I’m sure it came from a complete lack of awareness, total ignorance of the issue. It is important to me that business owners and the public understand that there are invisible disabilities, and that we as parents with special needs are constantly fighting to get our children the rights they deserve. My goal is not to shame the restaurant, but to raise awareness.”
As a society, we must push for extensive education about disabilities, both the visible and invisible. We also need to foster a culture that trusts when someone is identified as disabled, rather than challenging them and demanding an explanation.
While there’s still much work to be done around awareness, Israeli society has made tremendous strides in disability rights over the past few decades. Based on all of the progress I’ve seen working in the special needs sphere for the last 30 years, I’m hopeful that awareness of invisible disabilities will become mainstream in the coming years.

The writer is the founder and director of Alei Siach, a Jerusalem-based nonprofit providing all-inclusive solutions for people living with special needs and their families.