Disabilities Are Not Just Willed Away

Frimet Roth
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Frimet Roth

Now you see it, now you don't. The Esterina Tartman saga enjoyed the life span of most Israeli political crises: four days in the headlines, a couple more on the op-ed pages and then off to the history books.

But for the disabled and their families, the fallout is only beginning. In all likelihood, Tartman has set our cause back by several years.

It began in 1997 when Tartman was involved in a car accident. Three years later, she filed a legal complaint against two insurance companies based on the injuries she said she had sustained in the crash. Though she managed to remain at her bank job and pursue a bachelor's degree during those years, Tartman nevertheless argued that her injuries had damaged her long-term and short-term memory, as well as her concentration skills.

The judge was convinced and awarded her 1.3 million shekels.

Yet Tartman was not satisfied that she had milked the accident for its full worth. She applied to the National Insurance Institute (NII) for further compensation. There she won a determination of 52 percent permanent disability, entitling her to monthly payments of several thousand shekels for the rest of her life. Our tax shekels.

In February, Haaretz reported on the disturbing NII practice in which people claiming to suffer from immobility are put through the "fall test." The assessing doctor requires the applicant to stand or walk despite protestations of inability. The doctor may or may not initially support the applicant physically. In either case, the applicant is ultimately left unsupported and falls flat on the floor. This result is deemed a "passing grade" on the test. The humiliation leaves many disabled individuals in tears and traumatized.

Tartman's hectic schedule prior to her court case, and her subsequent segue to a political career and its attendant stress and long hours, raise concerns about her court and national insurance testimony. If, as seems plausible, she told falsehoods, then thousands of this country's disabled, already victims of the "fall test" and other mistreatment, are likely to suffer further consequences.

Anyone who has been awarded compensation for injuries from an accident or who brings such a claim is now liable to be scrutinized as another "Tartman." Students who genuinely suffer from disabilities affecting attention, concentration and memory may face new obstacles in obtaining exam-time extensions, a benefit which the Education Ministry has been granting them generously. Assessors may suspect students of being afflicted with "Tartman syndrome."

Moreover, Tartman's response to the media coverage of her monetary awards includes her novel definition of "dis ability." "I suffer pain to this day", she reportedly said, adding, "I hope to serve as a model for many people. Although the body is in pain, the spirit will remain stable and strong. I am proud that I do not let the disability impair my functioning."

In one press interview, she asserted emphatically: "I am a disabled person - physically." In another, Tartman declared: "I allowed the spirit to win over the physical. I call upon the disabled: 'Do not choose the option of submitting to disability and to pain! Let the spirit be victorious!'"

These ludicrous statements may have even more serious ramifications than the dubious claim itself. After labeling her injuries impressively as "disabilities," she boasts of overcoming them. Now the tens of thousand of Israel's truly disabled are likely to face blame - or to blame themselves - for failing to achieve the Tartman "model" of performance.

Among the many media and political pundits who have rushed to Tartman's defense, Anshel Pfeffer reminded Jerusalem Post readers that even if there is "an element of dishonesty in inflating a disability claim, it is well within the societal norm ... you go to court to get as much money as you can, and then get on with your life."

In reality, there are still a fair number of Israelis who would call "inflating" a claim lying or even perjury. And we would not consider it an option.

Pfeffer is convinced that Tartman attracted the public's wrath not by her actions but because of her political views and the fact that she is a woman. I do not share the political views of Tartman's attackers, and I am a woman. Nevertheless, I cannot abide Pfeffer's lame excuse for her conduct: "The weak and inexperienced often pay the price for the sins of the high and mighty."

I would urge him not to turn the perpetrator into the victim.

The question remains whether Tartman's punishment - loss of a ministerial position offered her - was appropriate. Some would argue she has not only proven herself unfit for a seat in the Cabinet but even to retain her seat in the Knesset. Yet the avalanche of government corruption has lowered our expectations so that even Tartman's staunchest critics seem satisfied with her return to the back benches.

But should she really be entrusted with the life and death decisions that regularly face our Knesset members?

Those who lust for power must understand the price tag it carries: high ethical standards.

At the very least, Tartman must not be allowed to continue enjoying the perks and privileges of a Knesset seat without addressing the community she most offended: the disabled. An apology for and retraction of her condescending and self-serving statements could minimize the harm she has caused.

Hopefully, she will also learn that a true disability cannot be wished, willed or spirited away.

Frimet Roth (frimet.roth@gmail.com) and her husband founded the Malki Foundation in their daughter's memory. The foundation provides support for families who care at home for a special-needs child.

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