Tourism unbound

Though there’s still a long way to go, the Tourism Ministry is now allocating NIS 15 million yearly to improving wheelchair accessibility in tourist sites.

DisabledTourist311 (photo credit: .)
(photo credit: .)
When my mother visited in December 2006, nobody had any idea that something was wrong.
She and my father stayed at the Dan Panorama Hotel in Jerusalem, just a 15-minute walk away from the apartment my wife and I were renting near the German Colony. But they didn’t mind. They were happy to walk. It seemed they would do it all day, every day, as they waited for us to come back from work.
My mother loved to shop. For some inexplicable reason she would hit the same Judaica stores on Rehov Ben-Yehuda each year – despite the fact that their selection never seemed to change. She would be there for hours, going back and forth, comparing prices, joking with the owners, until she would finally settle on something, which, given the time and effort it took to find, inevitably looked extremely small: carved metal Shabbat candle holders, Kiddush cups, halla covers – and all, without fail, for friends or family. Although she later described my father as the “worst person to go shopping with,” he would always be with her.
And she would be with him when they went to the sites that he always wanted to revisit. The Western Wall was one of his favorite spots, Mahaneh Yehuda, as well – there was one place there that, he says, sold the best sweet halla – and, on occasion, day excursions outside of the capital.
I found it amazing how, year after year since I made aliya in 2003, they could come and continually act like first-time tourists. After three years, I figured the routine would just go on forever. But it didn’t. It was the beginning of January 2007 when they got back to New York from another trip here. Two months later my mom was confined to a wheelchair – permanently, according to many doctors. They called it paraneoplastic syndrome, an extremely rare disease which, in certain cases, wreaks havoc on the central and peripheral nervous systems, and ultimately makes it impossible to walk, eat independently or talk coherently.
The weeks following the diagnosis were a fog of emotion and uncertainty. But coming so soon after their trip, at least one thought was clear: They would never be able to visit the country again. How could they, after all? Managing in a place they had lived for a quarter of a century would be hard enough, but traveling by plane across an ocean, to a land which, at first glance, doesn’t appear to be the most disabled friendly – it seemed an impossibility.
But it’s not impossible, either for them or for any other wheelchair-bound tourist. And last month, when the pain of separation – both from the country they loved and from my growing family – had finally become unbearable, they discovered just how feasible such a trip was.
IT BEGINS with very careful planning. “You have to understand the difference between a regular traveler and a traveler with a disability,” explains Yuval Wagner, founder of Access Israel, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving handicapped accessibility throughout the country. “Both travelers search the Web and find a location that they want to visit, but the difference comes when they decide to do something about it.
“A disabled person has to do much more research regarding the issue of disability. He needs to know how he’s going to get from the airport to the hotel, and to any other location. And then he needs to check on the accommodations themselves.”
In fact, disabled travelers need to check much more than that, beginning with the challenges that arise even before landing. After all, how does one board a plane if he or she can’t walk down the aisle? What about checking in and picking up bags without the ability to push the cart they’re piled on? And what of all the unexpected issues which inevitably arise?
“One time when we flew, [the airline] misplaced my battery,” says Michael Balkin, who suffers from spastic paraparesis, a progressive neurological disease, and uses an electric scooter. “We sat around there for an hour and a half or two hours while they were looking for it.
“My wife finally told them, ‘You don’t understand, we’re here for three and a half weeks, and those are his legs.’ They wound up looking again and found it. Now we try, whenever possible, to [carry on] the battery, but sometimes they fight us on it.”
Indeed, the questions and details that must be resolved following the purchase of a ticket are endless. Fortunately, there are a number of great resources ready and eager to assist in the preparations, and chief among them is Yad Sarah.
Yad Sarah is well-known for lending all manner of medical and rehabilitative equipment free of charge to residents of the country. But what’s slightly less well-known is that guests, too, can get the very same benefit.
“Since May 2000, we’ve tried to coordinate the tourist services as much as possible,” says Elaine Pomerantz, a volunteer who heads the tourism department of the organization. “I had over 200 tourists last year, and that’s just through my office.”
But “the numbers [of disabled tourists] are much higher than that, I would suspect,” she says, because many repeat visitors no longer contact her. After all, they already know exactly what equipment they can get from which of the 103 branches throughout the country.
Wheelchair resources
While Pomerantz says that a high percentage of requests are for wheelchairs, a disabled tourist can really get “almost everything that a tourist would need to come.”
And that includes more than just physical equipment. With her years of experience, Pomerantz is a wellspring of advice. She and her staff can suggest the perfect tour guide, help explain what to expect when flying disabled, scout a hotel or site to double-check that it actually is as handicapped-accessible as it claims and – in certain cases – offer guidance on how to overcome bureaucratic shortfalls.
“It used to be that you could go to the Licensing Office and bring your car rental agreement and your permit from your home country that you have the need for accessible parking, and they would issue you [a temporary handicapped parking tag],” Pomerantz explains. “Now there is no such thing. They don’t do it anymore.
“So it’s a problem for tourists who need their car and they’re afraid of getting ticketed, and they need accessible parking. I tell them just bring your permit from wherever you’re coming from, and put it in the window of your car – just try it and see.”
BUT AS good as Yad Sarah is, it can’t provide all the answers. Nor can Access Israel, a group which, while primarily focusing on lobbying for improved accessibility throughout the country and general increased awareness of the needs of the handicapped, also maintains a massive on-line database of information relevant to the disabled traveler. And although a significant amount of material is available in English, the organization itself is the first to admit that there’s still much work to be done.
“We at Access Israel are trying to deal with it,” says Wagner. “We’re doing a great job in Hebrew, but we don’t have enough donations in order to translate all the information to make it available for people who speak other languages.”
Wheelchair-bound tourists therefore have a choice: Either come as well prepared as possible, but with the knowledge that they may be in for a few hiccups, or hire travel agents or tour operators to make all the arrangements and take care of the complications. But while the former option has its drawbacks, so too does the latter – first and foremost being the price tag.
“I think what prevents most people from traveling anywhere, and especially people with disabilities, is money,” says Pomerantz, adding that here, “the most accessible hotels are the most expensive, because they have the money to do the renovations.”
Since the Planning and Construction Law passed in 1995, all new public buildings are required to be fully accessible to the disabled. And while another law currently in the works and expected to be passed by the Knesset in the coming months mandates that hotels built before 1995 must also cater to the needs of the handicapped within five years through renovations, currently those buildings are not required to make any adjustments. While some older hotels, either in their original designs or with renovations, are now accessible, Pnina Shilo, spokeswoman for the Israel Hotels Association, explains why not all lodgings are jumping into the disabled market voluntarily.
“There are no statistics regarding how many hotels are already accessible,” she says, “[but what is known is that] the occupancy rate in handicapped-accessible rooms in hotels is very low. Only between 10 percent and 20% during the course of the year, excluding the Dead Sea, which is higher.
“Therefore, the meaning of this is that when all hotels will be accessible, the occupancy rate in the handicapped-accessible rooms will be lower, which means a significant financial loss for the hotels.”
And so while, should the law be passed, Shilo says that in five years the country will be “among the most accessible in the world,” currently that access is only being provided by those chains that can afford the lost occupancy and the expense of renovations. Tack onto the already high rates the fees of a travel agent or tour operator, and the price may start to become prohibitive.
Comparatively, planning the trip independently allows for budget options that may be overlooked by the professionals.
“Now, when we come, we rent an apartment in Ra’anana,” says Balkin, who comes once or twice a year to visit his daughter, Elana. “It’s quite flat, very easy to get around – and less expensive.”
But should the professional route still be preferred, despite the added expense, another drawback must be considered. Unless the tour consists of only one person, chances are likely that the rest of the group won’t be disabled. And that means occasionally being excluded from the program.
“While you have to think carefully about catering to that specific [handicapped] individual, you are always left with a trick up your sleeve,” recalls Marcus Frieze, former senior tour operator at Da’at Educational Expeditions. “[If] one particular activity or site is not wheelchair accessible, so they’ll sit it out.”
Sharon Wagner-Zauder, Jewish educator and tour guide, describes facing just such situations.
“I have had groups with one or two people with disabilities, but the fact is that, say, when we went on a hike, they didn’t come with,” she says. “One of the issues can be that if you come in a mixed group, they’re going to cater to the majority.”
OF COURSE if the majority of the group is disabled, then that’s a different story – and one that is far more challenging.
“You have to go all the way back to the beginning,” says Frieze, who in 2007 organized the Birthright-Taglit trip “Hillel Rolls.” The trip, the first of its kind – and the last, as it turned out – was fully funded, as all Birthright trips are, and consisted of 15 disabled participants and one caretaker for each.
“The program that we designed was based on two primary factors that are totally different than any other trip that we planned,” he explains. “The first factor was where can we find 15 handicapped rooms in the same hotel – which is almost beyond thinking, because there’s only one place in the country where that exists.”
The second factor was deciding on the itinerary. On average, a tour group hits at least three or four sites in a day, and Birthright – being slightly different than the norm – visits about five. But after significant research and consultations with local experts in accessibility, it was decided that Hillel Rolls would only attempt to see half of the sites. And those sites had to be scouted thoroughly.
“Marcus asked me to go to the sites and check out to see if they were accessible,” says Jeremy Aron, who, along with Wagner-Zauder, led the disabled Birthright tour. “I took the itinerary, and I went to Yad Sarah and I got a wheelchair. I spent four days in a wheelchair, going around the country.
“It wasn’t just about finding out whether wheelchairs could get in, it was also about trying to understand how it would be to be in a wheelchair in these locations, and seeing how I was treated – or not treated – [as a result].”
As it turned out, the field research was essential given that even where multiple resources indicated handicapped accessibility, in certain places the reality on the ground proved otherwise. For example in Caesarea, where a route is specially marked for those who are disabled.
“If you decide to take a wheelchair on this disabled route, you will not get very far,” Aron says. “It’s impossible, unless you’ve got tractor wheels on the wheelchair. You just can’t do it.”
Or likewise, in the Old City of Jerusalem.
“There’s a wheelchair route, which takes you from the Jewish Quarter parking lot down and round the back of the synagogues, through a narrow passageway, down to the Cardo, up and back and around – whatever, it’s crazy,” says Aron.
“And for some reason, people keep ripping down the signs that mark the wheelchair route,” so unless one already knows where it is, it’s near impossible to find. Regardless, even in some of the areas which present complications, options for the handicapped traveler still exist. To get to the Western Wall, for instance, there is perfect wheelchair accessibility through the Dung Gate, as well as in select locations in Caesarea – away from the disabled route.
And the situation at various sites across the country continues to improve. According to the Tourism Ministry, NIS 15 million is allocated yearly to upgrading accessibility by building ramps, elevators and other adjustments, even in areas that are traditionally off-limits to wheelchairs.
“One example is a special trail for disabled people in Nahal David at Ein Gedi, which allows those that are handicapped to reach the first waterfall,” a statement by the Tourism Ministry said. “Similarly, at the natural pool in Ein Fash’ha, a special elevator was built in order to lower disabled people down. And on the beach in Tel Aviv, a ramp was built which allows people to get to the sea without crossing the sand.”
The results of this investment are impossible to ignore. Hotels, beaches, national parks, theaters, museums – essentially all the makings of a perfect tour are progressively becoming more accessible. Accordingly, despite existing limitations on wheelchair tourism, the experience currently available more than suffices.
 “However you define the major highlights of Israel, they did them,” Frieze says of the Birthright tour. “They went to the Western Wall, they went to Masada, they floated in the Dead Sea, they saw Tel Aviv, they saw the beauty of the North and they were enriched by their experience.
“The day that they arrived in Jerusalem and we did the Sheheheyanuceremony overlooking the Old City – I have never been touched like Iwas that day. It was so tremendously moving and inspiring to bringpeople who, at the end of the day, should be entitled to the same giftof a Jewish experience, the same gift of enriching their Jewishidentity as every other Jew out there in the Diaspora. And here wewere, against the odds, getting over the challenges to give them thatgift.”
Unfortunately, however, it is speculated that the gift proved tooexpensive to repeat – a consequence of the special accommodations whichwere made for the participants, as well as the significantly increasedstaff that was required to lead them and ensure their safety.Therefore, for those wheelchair-bound tourists who are eager for aguided experience, but don’t necessarily want to be on a regular tour,the options are few – and expensive. But according to one member of theHillel Rolls tour, the cost would be worth it.
“The trip was wonderful,” says Johana Schwartz, who is afflicted withcongenital cerebral palsy. And while there were some sites that wereleft out of the itinerary that she was eager to visit, she’s alreadylooking forward to a second chance.
“I could try [to see] these on another trip,” she says. “Or [after making] aliya.”