Revised Law Lays Foundation for a More Inclusive Israeli Society

By Leiba Chaya David

Recent statistics indicate that approximately 1 million people in Israel have a disability, defined as a health problem that interferes with their daily activities. This definition covers a wide range of challenges, including physical limitations, mental illnesses, behavioral disorders, and more. Yet perhaps the most important part of the definition is “interferes with their daily activities.” Close to 1 million people are unable to do what most others do easily every day – get up, get dressed, grab something to eat, head off to work or school, run errands, play with friends, or stroll through the park.

According to Ahiya Kamara, Commissioner for Equal Rights of Persons with Disabilities within the Israeli Ministry of Justice, Israel has come a long way toward creating a more accessible society. Hearing impaired since childhood, Kamara worked for many years as a disability-rights advocate and has been an active partner in drafting relevant legislation. The Equal Rights for Persons with Disabilities Law, originally passed by the Israeli Knesset in 1998, was recently revised to mandate “accessibility of services.”

The revised ordinance requires service providers – bank tellers, bus drivers, government clerks, Israel Defense Forces soldiers, teachers, restaurant owners, museum guides, and virtually any person who serves the public – to ensure that their staff is trained to relate to people with disabilities with sensitivity and respect. Any business or public institution with more than 25 employees must work with an “accessibility consultant” to develop a strategy for adapting services to the needs of clients with disabilities. Training seminars cover learning how to explain procedures, employ specialized tools, and generally provide a comfortable and dignified experience for the client.

When asked to describe the greatest challenge faced by people with disabilities in Israel, Kamara cites “the negative attitudes of fellow citizens.”

“The Commission [for Equal Rights of Persons with Disabilities] can declare that an entire fleet of buses meets the needs of passengers with wheelchairs or visual impediments,” Kamara says. “But if one driver fails to lower the wheelchair elevator because it is inconvenient, or another shames a blind person because he or she moves slowly … then the system is really not working.”

Aaron S., a 36-year-old computer programmer from Tel Aviv, was diagnosed several years ago with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT), a neural form of muscular atrophy. Faced with chronic pain and limited mobility, Aaron gradually became unable to get to work or pursue his favorite pastimes – theater and travel.

“You take these things for granted,” Aaron reflects, “and then one day, just like that, you are totally dependent on others. Not only for getting around, but also for acknowledgement as a complete human being.”

Both the Israeli government and a broad network of civil society organizations work to ensure that Aaron and other people with disabilities maintain the same rights, freedom, and dignity that other citizens enjoy. These efforts date back to the establishment of the Jewish state, when the Knesset first began develop a set of laws for people with disabilities. Yet most early Israeli disability laws and programs reflected a social-welfare approach, in which people with disabilities were viewed as the subjects of health plans and charitable organizations. This approach generally resulted in exclusion from mainstream society, as people with disabilities were isolated in separate classes, institutions, and at home.

The Equal Rights for Persons with Disabilities Law represented a shift in focus from a social-welfare approach to a legal and human-rights approach. In order to further develop and implement the law, the Ministry of Justice established the Commission for Equal Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2000. In 2012, the commission also became responsible for the implementation and monitoring of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. The U.N. Convention sets international standards for equality; full participation, inclusion, and integration in society; and the accessibility and autonomy of people with disabilities. Its stated purpose, upheld by the Israeli commission, is “to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity.”

One of the first sectors in Israel to work toward accessibility was public transportation, with some bus stations becoming wheelchair-accessible as early as the 1970s. Now, bus companies must re-outfit their facilities and vehicles to meet current accessibility requirements. To date, more than 85 percent of city bus companies in Israel have fully complied. When they don’t, as is the case for two major bus companies that failed to install appropriate loudspeaker systems, the equal rights commission holds the statutory authority to file a criminal charge.

In addition to refining and enforcing the law, the commission raises awareness about the rights and needs of people with disabilities by providing information, seminars, and consultations. In all of its work – lawmaking, enforcement, and advocacy – it employs the inclusive principle of “no decisions about us without us,” engaging people with disabilities at every stage. The commission’s work is supplemented by a host of educational programs and nonprofit organizations – many of which are run by people with disabilities – striving to integrate people with disabilities into all aspects of Israeli life.

One such organization is LOTEM-Making Nature Accessible, a Jewish National Fund (JNF)-supported nonprofit offering outings, nature clubs, and creative workshops in nature to people with special needs. LOTEM provides programs for children and adults who are blind and visually impaired, deaf and hearing impaired, physically and intellectually challenged, emotionally disturbed, and at risk of physical and emotional abuse. LOTEM staff tailors each program’s content to the special needs of the group.

Amos Ziv, LOTEM’s founder and director, helped to develop an aspect of the Equal Rights for People with Disabilities Law that requires nature sites to be accessible to people with disabilities. According to Ziv, the basic accessibility requirements are in place to allow people with special needs the same meaningful encounter with nature experienced by their peers. In LOTEM’s Emek Hashalom educational center, specially adapted trails and custom-designed tours enable people with different abilities to touch, smell, hear, and feel the land of Israel. The number of similarly accessible national parks, trails, and nature sites is still small, but growing.

With the recent revision of the Law for Equal Rights for People with Disabilities, LOTEM has started to share its service-accessibility expertise with service providers from across the spectrum of Israeli society. LOTEM’s newly constructed visitor center, funded by JNF donor Gloria Feldman and Israel’s National Insurance Agency, is the only facility of its kind located in nature – which experts say is a highly conducive environment for learning about the needs of people with disabilities. For example, bus drivers from the Egged and Dan companies participated in a “blind hike,” met a wheelchair-bound LOTEM staff member and public transportation user, and received instructions about how to be more sensitive to people with disabilities on the job.

Disability-rights advocates are hopeful that Israel’s Equal Rights for People with Disabilities Law provides the legal foundation for a society in which people with disabilities are accepted and supported. Advocates believe that as more people from all walks of life understand what it is like to live with a disability, the law will begin to change attitudes and shape a more equitable Israeli society.