The indignity of disability

Raising disability allowances is important. But it should be part of larger quest for justice.

Cooking with disability (photo credit: TAL ZOHAR)
Cooking with disability
(photo credit: TAL ZOHAR)
Disability rights activists are presented with a dilemma when fighting to break the link between poverty and disability.
Focusing on disability allowances, which has been the strategy of activists who have taken to the streets in recent weeks, is based on the understandable position that people with disabilities cannot wait until society abandons its many prejudices and becomes more welcoming and inclusive for the disabled.
The pressing needs of the disabled living in poverty must be addressed as quickly as possible. Eventually society will become more supportive and accepting of individuals with disabilities and will take measures to integrate them more fully, but in the meantime people need to eat, obtain housing and support other basic needs.
Focusing solely on disability allowances, however, runs the risk of delaying more fundamental changes in societal norms, because this discourse tends to reinforce stereotypes of the disabled as a group that is weak and unable to take care of itself.
Images of the disabled as poor, hungry, and sick can undermine the many gains achieved by champions of the rights of the disabled, who are fighting to make society more inclusive. Indeed, to draw attention to their cause and to garner compassion, the disabled are often forced to flaunt their weaknesses, which paradoxically serves to further strengthen stereotypes.
The tension between obtaining welfare benefits while still fighting for a more egalitarian society that recognizes the dignity of the disabled was expressed by the motto of disabled protesters: “We want justice, not charity,” a play on the Hebrew words tzedek and tzedaka.
Proponents of rights for the disabled must balance a demand for welfare benefits with a broader call for change to create a society that recognizes the rights and dignity of the disabled.
The level of support for the disabled has deteriorated over the years. According to a study by the Adva Center, between 2000 and 2016 a basket of basic goods reflected in the Consumer Price Index has risen 33%. In contrast, disability allowances have risen during the same period by just 4%.
New legislation that aims to raise disability allowances from the present level of just NIS 2,342 a month has received broad backing by the Knesset. Two-thirds of MKs voted in favor. But a series of delays has prevented the good intentions of our lawmakers from becoming a reality before Passover.
One of the concerns is the steep cost. Prof. Yaron Zelicha, who heads a committee appointed by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon to look into the implementation of a hike in disability allowances, estimated that raising the allowance to NIS 5,000, which is the minimum wage, would cost NIS 14 billion a year.
MK Ilan Gilon (Meretz) said that, based on National Insurance Institute figures, the cost would be closer to NIS 7 billion a year. A more modest hike in benefits would cost less, but raising the allowance would result in a higher demand, as more disabled individuals would be motivated to apply.
Clearly steps need to be taken to provide the disabled with more extensive economic support in the form of allowances and monetary benefits. However, this should be part of a larger strategy for a more comprehensive transformation of Israeli society.
Already in 1996 the Knesset passed the Equal Rights for People with Disabilities Law. It is an ambitious law that seeks to address almost every aspect of the lives of people with disabilities: accessibility, employment, education, culture, leisure, health, housing and more.
Unfortunately, there have been setbacks. According to a study published on December 3, the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, by the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, there was a drop in employment of disabled persons from 55% in 2014 to 51% in 2015.
Raising disability allowances is important. But it should be part of larger quest for justice. Disability allowances cannot be the only issue on the agenda for the disabled. But ignoring them altogether would be missing an important element in the ongoing battle for a more egalitarian and inclusive society.