A Demand for Civil Rights, Not Tears and Pity

In the past few years, all the public knows about the disabled in Israel is tainted by contexts of pity: disabled individuals freezing in the cold, crying, fainting, trying to get into the Knesset and being repulsed.

At the age of 35, A. is confined to a wheelchair in the wake of cerebral palsy that he contracted as a child. With great difficulty, and following exhausting battles he fought against social welfare authorities, psychologists and various committees, he was able to evade being committed to an institution in which most of the patients suffer from mental retardation.

He did a B.A. in the humanities and found a reasonable place in a hostel in the north of the country. Fortunately for A., his parents have a good income and they worked hard all their lives to purchase for their son all the aids he needed and to ensure that he remained mobile. Now, as pensioners, they spend much of their time in long trips to visit their son.

From the allowance for the disabled, which currently stands at NIS 1,863, the hostel receives NIS 1,500 (from a government budget) to help underwrite A.'s residence there, and the rest goes to A. in the form of "pocket money." Because he does not drive, the mobility increment goes to his parents, who drive a discounted car. The parents say that the treatment their son receives is excellent. In fact, most of A.'s difficulties do not lie in the economic realm. He would prefer to live in protected housing or in a hostel in the center of the country, with others of his age and level. His situation would thereby improve enormously.

He might be able to find work commensurate with his skills and limitations, earn a decent living and thus reduce his dependence on his parents. He would be able to visit them, continue his studies and go out with friends who are not disabled. As things stand, he works in a protected enterprise in the hostel and his parents buy him clothes and books and whatever else is beyond the minimal needs supplied by the hostel.

A. cannot move to the center. Because of the neighbors' objections he cannot move into a promised apartment in Tel Aviv, and there is no hostel in the area. Because he suffers from the remoteness of his current residence and from loneliness, and because he does not want to continue being dependent on his parents, he tried once to make the trip from Tel Aviv to the hostel on his own. In the Tel Aviv train station he was unable to get onto the train from the platform and had to be lifted into the car in his wheelchair. The story repeated itself in Nahariya: he needed the help of good-hearted - and muscular - people.

A. did not take part in the strike of the disabled. Some of his friends were angered when he said that he was not enthusiastic about the strike action. He doesn't appear on television talk shows, even though he, too, like others in his condition, could touch the hearts of the viewers by virtue of his intelligence, his rich education, his sharp sense of humor, his approach to life, his serious physical handicap and the insult he feels whenever he has dealings with the establishment and with the society in general.

A. is the salient example of a disabled individual who should have the help of the state - which enacted special legislation for people with limitations - in improving his quality of life and his general well-being and in helping him become an active, independent citizen.

In the past few years, however, all the public knows about the disabled in Israel is tainted by contexts of pity: disabled individuals freezing in the cold, crying, fainting, trying to get into the Knesset and being repulsed, being photographed with Knesset members and performing artists, and making threats.

According to A., the tears and the pity make people forget the discourse of civil rights. Two weeks ago, the commissioner of equal rights for people with disabilities, attorney Ariella Ophir, resigned. She noted, in her letter of resignation, that even though she had been appointed a year-and-a-half ago, the government had effectively prevented her from doing her job and she was compelled to shut down even the ombudsman's unit that she established.

The law in regard to individuals with limitations, which was passed two-and-a-half years ago, makes only three stipulations: accessibility to public transportation and public buildings, employment for the disabled and the establishment of the commission. By failing to set up the commission, the government is breaking the law.

But even before that, the government was in violation of the law, because in Israel the disabled have no access to public transportation or to many public buildings, and about 130,000 disabled individuals are jobless, even though most of them are willing and able to work.

To judge by the frame of mind of the strikers, one of their number is liable to act rashly and turn the injustice and the pain from which they suffer into a tragedy. That will draw headlines, of course, and be forgotten the next day.

The prime minister, in his emotional meeting with the hunger strikers last week, succeeded in softening their stubbornness, but that is immaterial as far as A. is concerned. If his disability allowance is increased so that it matches the minimum wage, as the strikers are demanding in the name of the country's entire disabled population, most of the money will probably go directly to the hostel and have little effect on his situation.

The cost to the government of ensuring accessibility, of encouraging employers to hire the disabled and of improving the housing of the disabled, will be much lower. The result is liable to be that what will appear to be a victory for the disabled will have the effect of erasing the civil demand for a status of honor, eliminating the prospect of reestablishing the commission of equal rights for the disabled, and of leaving A. as excluded and dependent as he has always been.