Just about broke my heart! Here was my very good friend, Jeannie, well into her 60s but by no means old, wanting to join in a sing-along event and she couldn’t. Why? Because it was held at a venue up six steep steps and it was not accessible to her.
Pity – you say? Well, think on this one. When an organization arranged a group holiday some time back, Jeannie wanted to participate. I thought it could be great – we’d have a break together and Jeannie would enjoy being driven around. But no – the organizers said they could not cope with her special needs … she’d slow the group down, she’d require a bus with a special step – in other words – she’d be a problem.
Jeannie’s not the only one to be hurt and humiliated by the sometimes insensitive ways in which our society relates to its people with special needs. Some years ago, when we were organizing an international conference for Beit Issie Shapiro, we took pains to find an accessible hotel. In fact, accessibility was one of our critical requirements. We approached one of the biggest and best hotels in Tel Aviv - they assured us that, absolutely, they were accessible. They prided themselves on this and proudly advertised the fact, so we contracted with them.
Shortly before the conference, accompanied by Bella Zur of the Raanana Municipality’s task force on accessibility, I visited the hotel to check everything. Bella, a childhood polio victim, is herself a paraplegic and perambulates from place to place. When we arrived at the hotel on the surface everything seemed great. But wait – though they did indeed have a ramp for people in wheelchairs – the gradient was so steep that it was exhausting if not impossible for Bella to climb. The bathroom door had such tight springs that she could not push it open or hold it long enough to enter. The serving tables in the dining room were too high for her to reach and as for the rooms...! The cupboard hanging space was unreachable from her wheelchair and the emergency telephone was inaccessible. And it was difficult for her to move around the room.
When we protested, the hotel management was taken aback. It was not that they were uncooperative – they simply lacked experience of the very real difficulties encountered by people with disabilities every day of their lives. It was only when their staff walked around the building with Bella in her wheelchair that they saw things through her eyes and were sensitized to the scope of the accommodations that had to be made.
Being involved in the ‘disability’ business (I’ve worked for Beit Issie Shapiro for over 20 years) I am perhaps more sensitive than most to the embarrassments and upsetting exclusion of those who are not totally able-bodied. For years I struggled to push my wheelchair-bound mother along uneven pavements and to enter buildings without ramps. I’ve spoken to women who neglected going for gynecological examinations because they couldn’t face the ordeal of climbing onto the examination table. And I know people who dare not go on group trips unless they're assured of timely toilet stops and decent facilities. Sad to say I could go on …
Things must change – I don’t want to live in a community which doesn’t respect the rights of people with special needs and won’t make the small accommodations that could allow them to lead normal independent lives. Venues for events should be chosen only if they are accessible. Theaters must be encouraged to provide audio-phones for people with hearing difficulties. Elevators should be fitted with vocal instructions to help orient those who cannot see when they reach the level they want. The entrances to our buildings must be made accessible to wheelchair-bound residents and visitors. We all need to make the effort to include people with disabilities in the social and cultural activities we all enjoy.
I want my friend Jeannie to be able to join my choir, to come to lectures, to accompany me on group holidays. I am proud to work for an organization that makes the effort to understand the needs of those who cannot talk and which goes the extra mile to make it possible for those with visual impairments to get around. When we renovated our building recently, we invested heavily in making our facilities easy to access. We designed Park Chaverim in Raanana to provide enjoyment to children with many different abilities and handicaps, and we added educational programs that teach regular children to play and share with children with special needs with understanding and acceptance.
We all have to become more aware and sensitive and make the effort to include those who are 'different'. I don’t want to be ashamed when my friends with special needs are rejected because they look different or speak differently, or when they must exclude themselves because of some inconvenience. I expect that in Israel at least, we pursue the dream of ‘tikun olam’ to be a just and compassionate society where people care about people.
I want my friend Jeannie, and other people with special needs, to be able to live full and useful lives in our precious country. Why should we deprive ourselves of the sparkle, wit, intelligence and experience of those whose bodies give them a hard time? Let’s take the ‘dis’ out of ability and focus on the positives that each can contribute. Wouldn't it be nice if at some future date, I was inspired to write an article about a change in our attitudes, optimistically titled: Enough to Warm Your Heart!