Lieutenant Colonel Yuval Wagner, the founder of Access Israel, is an Israeli Air Force combat pilot who was injured in a helicopter crash that left him a quadriplegic confined to a wheelchair. For Wagner, life has never been ordinary, as he has seen and experienced the life of the disabled from every possible angle: as a child, he was the son of a father in a wheelchair; as a young man, he became disabled himself after his injury; and as an adult, he is a disabled father of three children.
It was then – when I became a father – that I realized that being disabled in Israel is simply impossible, says Wagner. In 1999, he decided to write to then-President Ezer Weizman, and to inform him of the difficult situation of the disabled in Israel. Weizman – in his usual charismatic way – ordered me to found an organization that would work to find solutions to the problem, Wagner recalls. And so Access Israel was born.
A range of activities
Access Israel works hard on many fronts in order to make Israel more accessible to its citizens and to improve the quality of life of the 1.6 million Israelis with disabilities. The Access Israel Internet Information Center is the most popular website among people with disabilities and their families. Its a web portal in English, Hebrew and Arabic, which is also an important source of information among professionals and service providers.
Access Israel runs educational programs for children of various ages to increase their awareness of accessibility and inclusion. Different activities are tailored to different target populations, and include informational as well as experiential activities. For groups of children, the lessons introduce them to physical and personal differences and similarities, basic terminology and concepts relating to the disabled population and helping others. Other activities allow participants to experience accessibility, thereby increasing their awareness of the needs of disabled people. The children then promote awareness in their communities, such as by asking family and friends to sign petitions to promote tolerance, by keeping disabled parking spaces free, and more. This program is offered nation-wide and includes close cooperation with the Ministry of Education.
Accessibility workshops are also offered to employees of academic institutions to train them to provide accessible services to disabled students. There are also workshops to teach about deaf and hearing impaired people and sign language. Thousands of people all around Israel can communicate in basic sign language thanks to this program. A special Accessibility Training program trains employees of local municipalities and businesses to provide accessible face-to-face services, phone and Internet services, public events and more.
Access Israel also promotes accessibility by working with various target populations, including decision makers, Knesset Members, businesses, local municipalities and the public. The organization reaches out through media campaigns, public relations activities, informal meetings with disabled individuals, conferences and lectures on accessibility by experts, as well as unique events. Among other efforts, Access Israel is involved in drafting the Equal Rights to People with Disabilities Act, and assists with the promotion and publication of accessibility regulations and standards. Furthermore, Access Israel promotes and builds accessible trails and picnic areas throughout Israel so that people with a range of different disabilities can enjoy nature just like everyone else.
The unique Feast of Senses project was developed by Access Israel to give influential people and decision makers a taste of what it feels like to have a disability. The feast consists of a three-course meal in a restaurant where each of the courses is experienced in combination with a different disability: eating while wearing headphones which disrupt hearing, blind wine tasting, eating while wearing gloves (to simulate physical limitations), etc. The feast also includes encounters with a blind person, a hearing impaired person and someone with a physical disability. At the recent Enable conference held at the United Nations in New York, Israeli Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative to the U.N. David Roet hosted, together with Access Israel, a Feast of Senses for 30 diplomats from around the world.
Says Michal Moked-Rimon, CEO of Access Israel and a member of the delegation: While the state of Israel has a long way to go until it is fully accessible for all kinds of disabilities, Israeli society and specifically Access Israel have much to be proud of, and we are glad to rise up to the challenge and promote these important issues on a global level, and promote Israel as an accessible state, in a positive light, in a humane and experiential manner.