In search of justice, and not just charity

Israel is the new land of opportunity, but for many people with disabilities, it’s anything but.

Much has been made about Israel being the new land of opportunity. But for many people with disabilities, it’s anything but.
People who walk, talk, hear, see or perhaps think differently than the able-bodied Israeli “norm” have a long way to go before they can share in Israel’s economic boom. Nearly 18% of adults aged 20-64 have a disability, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. Of those, many have jobs, go to school, and live among us. But many – too many – still live in institutions, and even more live at home in poverty, without access to adequate education or employment.
Israel has made great progress in promoting the legal rights of people with disabilities in recent years.
Its basic laws ensure equal protection for all. Its 1988 special education law (which since has been amended) guarantees every student the right to education in “regular schools.” Israel’s Equal Rights of People with Disabilities Law, enacted in 1998, is one of the world’s most comprehensive, and requires, among other things, that all new buildings be accessible, although approval is still pending for existing buildings and services. Many buses in Israel are accessible, and the trains should be. There are some programs on TV with sign-language interpreters, and there are plans for more street lights with audio signals for blind pedestrians. Some efforts have been undertaken to move people with disabilities out of institutions, but it isn’t enough.
Many sections of the Equal Rights Law have not yet been adopted, and of those that have, many are still awaiting approval of their implementing regulations.
Israel’s situation is not unique; many laws are passed but never implemented. Thus, despite the many accomplishments to promote the rights of people with disabilities by the Netzivut (Commission on the Equal Rights of People with Disabilities) as well as organizations such as Bizchut (Israel’s Human Rights Center for People with Disabilities) and Al Manarah (Arab Association for People with Disabilities), life for far too many Israelis with disabilities is not easy.
Life is a challenge for many people with disabilities I have met, and not because they are sick, helpless, or waiting for handouts. On the contrary, they want to go to school and to work; they want to have friends, fall in love and raise families. They want to live in your neighborhoods, and contribute to Israeli society. But they face discrimination in almost every aspect of their lives. And for those who don’t serve in the IDF, or who are Arab, Beduin, haredi, HIV positive, or have a history of mental illness or multiple disabilities, the situation is even worse.
THE BEST indicator for future economic success in any society is access to education. A 2010 study found a direct relationship between higher education and wage levels in Israel. But many students with disabilities are not receiving the education they need to succeed. Some are left behind in special schools and classrooms, or even worse, in institutions with no education at all. Others are included in regular classrooms, but without the support they and their teachers need.
As a Jewish state, one would think that Israel’s education system would be surpassed by none.
Indeed, 45 percent of all Israelis between 25 and 64 have some level of post-secondary education.
But for students with disabilities, that is not the case. This year, I received a grant from the US Department of Education to do a comparative study of inclusion of students with disabilities in higher education in Israel and the US. An estimated 11% of American college students have disabilities, although the number is likely higher because colleges and universities are not required to report the number of students with disabilities, and many disabilities are not easily apparent.
My study is not yet complete, but it appears that in Israel far fewer students with disabilities are attending colleges and universities in relation to their percentage of the general population. Why is that? Is it because accommodations for the bagrut and psychometric exams are too difficult to obtain, even if they are legally required? Is it because students with disabilities don’t have the quality secondary education to graduate from colleges or universities? Is it because the campuses, classrooms and computers are not accessible to students with disabilities? Is it because too few universities and colleges have effective centers to support such students? (That situation may change soon with a new initiative by Bituah Leumi). Or is it because of the widespread prejudice and parentalism that permeates Israeli society about the limits rather than the potential of people with disabilities? All these factors contribute to the low numbers of students with disabilities in Israeli colleges and universities.
ISRAEL HAS many problems, and resources are limited. I understand.
But it’s not just a question of money; a change of attitude is required.
People with disabilities are here to stay, and their numbers are growing.
Now is the time for Israel to work not only to include students with disabilities in universities and colleges, but also to accept them as people who have skills and the ability to contribute to Israeli society.
Only then will people with disabilities share in Israel’s bounty. And only then will Israelis without disabilities benefit as we open our minds and hearts to people who are not looking for tzedaka (charity) but for tzedek (justice) and the right to a place in the classroom, the bima and the boardroom.
The writer is Meredith professor of law at Syracuse University, and is currently on a two-year leave in Israel.
At Syracuse, she directs the Disability Law and Policy Program and co-directs the SU Center on Human Policy, Law and Disability Studies. She is this year’s recipient of the Distinguished Switzer Fellowship from the US Department of Education, and is currently a visitor at Hebrew University Faculty of Law.