A Life Inaccessible, Storm or No Storm

Even when a storm isn't raging, some 700,000 disabled Israelis cannot leave the home and get about.

Avirama Golan
Avirama Golan
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Avirama Golan
Avirama Golan

The stormy weekend, which kept tens of thousands of people trapped in their homes and forced many others to deal with long hours without electricity or communications, provides a perfect image. Even in normal times, about 1.1 million Israelis live with disabilities that restrict their functioning, and 700,000 cannot manage independently in the street, at work or at leisure spots, simply because the public space in Israel is not accessible.

Although in recent years there has been substantial improvement in the level of accessibility in Israel, it’s only because the previous situation was so embarrassing. But even after the Equal Rights for People with Disabilities Law was passed in 1998, then some significant amendments, chiefly relating to accessibility, were added in 2005 and new, specific regulations went into effect last week just after World Accessibility Day, progress has been too slow.

Cooperation between political parties left and right on this issue has been impressive and indicative of the changing public norms. It’s rare to find another area that has achieved such a broad consensus. Maybe because Israel has tens of thousands of war casualties, disabled and shell-shocked individuals in need of intensive treatment, and because there are so many it’s hard to miss the person in the wheelchair or accompanied by a guide dog. Add to this the ancient Jewish tradition of communal compassion, which has generally yielded sympathy and donations and is at its best when manifested on a national scale.

Moreover, this consensus operates comfortably within the neoliberal logic that has swept Israeli society, and which judges everything exclusively in terms of profitability. Even the most conservative economists support improving accessibility in all areas – transportation, health, welfare, education and higher education – and they joined Meretz MK Ilan Gilon in promoting the new detailed regulations that obligate all government ministries. An impressive achievement indeed.

So if everything is so good, why is the situation still so bad? Because it was only in the late 1990s that Israel recognized the right of its disabled citizens to equal rights, leaving it way behind those countries from which it is still learning the principles of accessibility. It’s enough to visit Rotterdam in the Netherlands, for example, to understand what an open public space is, from public transportation that’s totally accessible to particularly convenient access to recreation and entertainment sites, not to mention that society’s authentic egalitarian attitude. Here any progress requires persistent public campaigning led by a few fanatics.

But most of all, we need to understand that accessibility is a much broader concept than a bus ramp. Accessibility is a principle that is meant to serve every person for whom the public space is liable to pose difficulties, including children and the elderly.

The new regulations that recently went into effect specify what every ministry is meant to provide in its field, and all the ministers have signed their consent, but even so, Israel is still far from realizing the spirit of the Equal Rights for People with Disabilities Law. The purpose of the law is to preserve the dignity and freedom of the disabled person in a way “that will allow him to live his life with the greatest possible independence, privacy and dignity.” Accessibility is a required, but not sufficient, condition for such a life. To actually live a life of dignity would require a new contract between the state and its disabled citizens. This contract must obligate the state to provide an economic safety net to prevent their poverty and distress and ensure their full and real integration into society. This has yet to be done.

Presumably whoever would fight to achieve such a contract would benefit from the same consensus enjoyed by those promoting accessibility. Actually, perhaps we should strive for a contract like this between the state and all its citizens.

Snow in the Old City of Jerusalem, Dec. 2013Credit: Roy Porat

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