Israel isn’t the easiest place for maneuvering with a physical limitation. A country of ancient sites, rocky ruins and narrow alleyways hugged by historic buildings, it’s better suited to mules than cars, let alone people with disabilities. At the same time, as a country with an estimated 50,000 war veterans with disabilities, Israel has many people living their lives in wheelchairs or using other adaptive technologies.
While proper wheelchair access — and parking spots — for the disabled is still limited, several organizations of people whose lives have been affected by their disability have created projects that help able-bodied people experience — albeit in a limited sense — what it’s like to have a physical or cognitive disability. When experienced as part of a trip to Israel, or for regular Israelis in their daily lives, these programs allow the able-bodied to gain a better understanding of life for the disabled.
Dialogue in the Dark
A walk through the “Dialogue in the Dark” at the Israel Children’s Museum in Holon or its companion, “An Invitation to Silence,” is a powerful immersion into the daily life of someone with a visual or auditory limitation, including challenges of daily life such as a trip to the market, a walk on a busy street and, even a trip to a cafe. Guides who themselves are either blind or deaf, lead visitors through, contributing to the overall effect. Experienced by more than 500,000 visitors, it takes place in many countries but Israel has been the most successful location, said Gil Omer, the museum’s general manager. the museum has also become the biggest employer for the seeing impaired in Israel.
At Jaffa’s Nalaga’at Center, the only one of its kind in the world, visitors can eat dinner completely in the dark, mimicking the experience of the staff of blind waiters, see the play “Not by Bread Alone,” performed by an ensemble of Jewish, Muslim and Samaritan actors who are also deaf or blind, and hang out at Cafe Kapish, where orders are made in sign language, to enable the staff of deaf waiters. As one reviewer noted, it may not be the best cuisine in Israel, but it’s a transformative experience.
What about the challenges of exploring the world of a person with a developmental delay or other physical handicap? Yuval Wagner, founder and chairman of Access Israel, has been wheelchair bound since a 1987 training accident during his army service. “When I came out of rehab, I couldn’t understand the idea that everywhere I needed to go I had to ask for help,” he said.
Ironically, Wagner was raised by a parent in a wheelchair, his father, who was injured while serving in the army. Attitudes were quite different then, remarks Wagner, as one didn’t talk about their disability. Fifty years later, he notes an attitude shift, as people with disabilities don’t want to be humiliated or left out of life because of lack of access.
Access Israel is focused on awareness and on educating the public, particularly those who are decision makers in their industry, helping them understand the needs of a person with disabilities and what accessibility necessitates. Wagner’s organization created the Meal for the Senses, an intimate, multi-course meal that offers a crash course in the life of a person with disabilities. Imagine trying to slice a shnitzel while wearing a cooking mitt, or putting on a headset with strange sounds that change one’s ability to hear; each course is an exercise in humility for people of ordinary abilities.
Ruderman Family Foundation
As for compliance to local accessibility laws, Israel remains, well, challenged. Jay Ruderman, who heads his family foundation and is a local advocate among government officials to improve the overall integration of people with disabilities in Israel, comments that progress has been made, but accountability and bureaucracy get in the way.
“We talk about disabilities and [the] inclusion of people with disabilities but unless you can have a sense of what that means it’s only ideological,” said Ruderman. “I think these experiences bring it home; for one moment you can understand what someone else’s life is like.”