The Unlimited Right to Vote

The sign on the door of an apartment in Jerusalem's Katamon neighborhood reads: "The Artists' Place." Inside, the apartment is bright and warm. The walls are covered with the works of six tenants, who all suffer from Cerebral Palsy and have serious physical handicaps. At 9 P.M. last Monday, they all gathered around their caregiver, who prepared them for Election Day.

"This is not the first time we are voting," says Eyal, 25, who is in a wheelchair. "People think Cerebral Palsy is the end of the world, but it is important for us to explain that behind the illness there are people who lead full lives, that we are not 'aliens,' as someone once said to me. I work in a factory and lecture in schools about my life, so people will get to know us. I think people don't know enough about us. Sometimes I think you are not curious enough."

Osnat, 27, also confined to a wheelchair, says she thinks that "every human being has the right to vote. So what if we are in wheelchairs and have Cerebral Palsy and need our parents' help to do so? We have the right to express our opinion."

"I will cast a blank ballot and write 'Gilad Shalit' on it, because all the parties are corrupt and the Power to Change party does not have a clear [agenda]," adds Michal, Osnat's twin sister.

"We can do it for sure. We can do it for sure. We can do it for sure," declares Tamar, 24, drawing out her words, staring vacantly into space. Tom, who will be 32 next month, adds: "It is personally important for me to vote, because I have supported Likud for years already and I very much want them to come to power."

Two caregivers help Galia enter the living room. The 30-year-old is petite and thin. Her body is unstable and her hands flutter about involuntarily. The illness has also affected her speech. At the age of 4, she learned how to communicate through body language, a Bliss Board (consisting of letters, symbols and pictures) and the letters of the alphabet. She now commands a lexicon of 1,400 words. The caregiver holds the board, glances at it, and Galia stops her with eye movements. The result is the sentence that Galia wants to communicate. When Galia wants to say "yes," she focuses her blue eyes directly on her interlocutor.

Is it important for you to vote?

She answers with a focused blue-eyed look.

Who will you vote for?

Long minutes tick by. "I don't know yet. I will decide tomorrow in the voting booth."

Why is it important for you to vote?

"Because I am a citizen of the country."

Tell me, are we worth making all this effort to talk to?

Galia shakes her body and her mouth opens wide in laughter, but no sound is heard. A few minutes later, the laughter abates and she replies with a focused look.

Osnat is undecided between Lieberman and Barak. "I hear people saying 'Lieberman, Lieberman' all the time. Besides, after the war they are really quite similar." Tamar will under no circumstances reveal who she will vote for. Eyal was wavering between the party of the disabled and Likud. "The person whose candidate wins will invite everyone for pizza," the tenants decide.

Eyal says he cannot read or write. Will everyone be able to identify the party letters which appear on the ballot? Tom knows the three letters that stand for Likud - the others admit that they do not know. "These days all the politicians are unreliable." Eyal says with a smile. "Last time I looked at the polls and watched the election commercials on television, but not this year. It was more interesting in past years."

Osnat sums up with captivating sincerity: "It is not really interesting, but because you came to us, we are talking to you about it."

"The polling station is close and accessible, but there is a steep rise that will be hard for you, especially for those who do not have a motorized wheelchair. We need to be escorted by someone who is physically strong," the caregiver cautions. An anxious silence descends on the group. They have lived in this apartment, which belongs to the nonprofit group Shekel, for three years. The association has been in operation for 30 years, providing services of "housing in the community," employment and leisure-time culture for some 7,000 Jews and Arabs. "According to our estimates, more than 50 percent of the people we are in contact with voted and want to be involved," says Clara Feldman, the executive director of Shekel.

Tamar goes to vote early in the morning, together with her mother and sister. When she returns to the apartment she still refuses to say who she voted for. "I was thrilled to see all the ballots. At first I didn't know what I wanted, so my sister helped me. Without my sister's help I wouldn't have managed."

Later, Osnat and Michal's parents arrive to take the twins to vote. "It was important for us to come, because Osnat has a problem identifying letters and also other handicaps, and I didn't want her to vote for just anyone," the girls' father explains. "I was afraid others would take advantage of her."

From the moment she leaves the building, Osnat holds her ID card and her voting ticket. She drives her motorized wheelchair smoothly and is the first to arrive. Entering, she encounters a short line. "I am sitting anyway, so it's not terrible to wait," she says, smiling. She has already made up her mind between Lieberman and Barak. When we enter, it is clear that she is excited. She hands her ID card to one of the supervisors, who gives her her ballot envelope. Behind the screen her mother asks her if she sees the letters of the party she wants. Osnat looks carefully, scans the ballots repeatedly. "No, mom, I don't see it."

"Try to concentrate. We went through this a few times. It starts with the letter aleph."

Osnat can't find the ballot. "Here it is, on the top right."

"Yes, Emet" - the Labor Party letters. She laughs. "But I can't reach it. Help me, mom." Her mother hands her the ballot. "You only need one ballot. You only need one ballot," Osnat repeats. She puts it into the envelope with one finger, her hand trembling, but manages to seal the envelope. "I work in a factory with stickers," she says proudly. Moving the wheelchair quickly back, she watches the polling station committee as they stuff the envelope into a second envelope, which she then puts into the ballot box.

"Well done," everyone in the room compliments her. "I did it again," she says as she leaves, a big smile lighting up her face.

Hanna, the caregiver, a slender girl, pushes Tom's wheelchair with a huge effort. "I would not be able to cross the road and certainly not get up alone," he says, as we make our way to the polling station. Behind the screen, Tom easily identifies the Likud ballot. "I have problems with my vision and usually can't make out letters, but these are big," he says happily. The caregiver helps him pick up one ballot. He puts it into the envelope, slides it into the ballot box and smiles with delight. On the way home, it seems as if he hardly needs the caregiver's help to maneuver the wheelchair.

Heavy rain accompanied by hail starts to fall in the afternoon. Galia's parents and sister arrive to take her to vote. "She knows exactly who she is voting for, she is just keeping everyone in suspense for the fun of it. She told us on Shabbat who she would vote for," her father says. Galia shakes her body and laughs. "Who are you voting for? Green Leaf? The Pensioners?" he laughs, and she returns a silent laugh. "We came to take her to vote, because this is part of the family experience and part of the democratic procedure, and her vote is important," her father says.

Is it important for you to encourage her to vote?

"She is encouraging us to vote," her mother laughs.

The rain is getting harder. "That will not stop us," Galia's father says on the way. At the entrance to the room where the voting takes place, the committee members look at Galia with astonishment. Galia is visibly moved. Her body shakes in the wheelchair and she emits roars of joy. "Have you decided already?" her father asks with a smile. Galia's eyes say yes. As they approach the screen that hides the ballots, she confirms the ballot with her eyes when her father holds it up. After he places the ballot in the envelope for her, she smiles, flushed with excitement, as they emerge from behind the screen. Galia now stops and wants to say something via the Bliss Board. Slowly a sentence is crafted: "It's such a good feeling."