These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

The Disability Community in Israel

Posted on April 3, 2012 by J. Belasco

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Most people who know me know that I am active in the field of disability rights.  While it has taken me a while to connect to a disability community here in Jerusalem, I have recently begun to do so through the Jerusalem Center for Independent Living (מרכז לחיים עצמאיים), which is located in a decently-sized, fully-accessible building near Tzomet Pat and serves, all told, approximately 1000 Jerusalemites with a wide range of disabilities.  (For those who are not familiar, the Independent Living movement began in the US in the 1970s as part of the fledgling disability rights movement.  The CIL philosophy emphasizes that people with disabilities are the experts on their own needs, and that by joining together, they can work towards goals like de-institutionalization, social acceptance, self-determination, and equal opportunity.)

As part of a mini-research project I am currently pursuing on the experiences of people with disabilities in Israel/Palestine, I decided to sit down with Henia Schwartz, the coordinator of the Center, and ask her for a general overview both of the CIL as an organization and of its place in the Israeli disability landscape.

According to Henia, the general state of disability issues in Israel is not nearly as well-developed as in the US (where, believe me, there is still plenty of development left to happen), but that said, the situation is steadily improving.  The CIL movement in Israel is very new.  The Jerusalem CIL — the first CIL in the entire country — opened its doors in November 2007, and since then, five other CILs have been founded, in Be’er Sheva, Haifa, Sakhnin, Etzba haGalil, and Tel Aviv.  The CIL movement in Israel has received a large amount of support from the Joint Distribution Committee, which has chosen disability issues as one of its main areas of focus for its work in Israel.  The building in which the Jerusalem CIL is located is owned by the JDC (the CIL pays a nominal rent of one shekel).  Currently, the JDC also provides funding for building maintenance, but this funding is set to run out shortly, so the CIL staff is busy searching for alternate funding from sources such as Israel’s Welfare Ministry and private grants.

The CIL in Jerusalem offers a number of programs and services that, in keeping with the general CIL model, are “by the disabled, for the disabled.”  These programs include:

  • Peer Counseling – offered by people with disabilities who also hold social work or counseling degrees.
  • Universal Design Workshops – where people can get their wheelchairs repaired, or have technical adjustments made to their assistive devices.
  • Courses – to teach people about what their rights are according to Israel’s disability rights legislation, and also to teach employment skills that will enable people to get jobs in the regular job market (rather than in sheltered workshops).
  • Merkaz Tipuach Yozmot – a “center for fostering initiatives” that teaches people with disabilities how to open small businesses.  So far, the center has helped three people to open businesses – one in graphics, one in electronic music, and one in ceramics.
  • Health Promotion – programs that promote health and well-being for people with disabilities, including a monthly health day, lectures, dietician visits, and fitness events.
  • Relationship Workshops – programs that enable people with disabilities to discuss barriers they encounter in forming intimate and sexual relationships, and strategies to overcome those barriers.  These workshops are a very new initiative in Israel and so far are only being conducted at the Jerusalem CIL.
  • Social Change Committees – organize and promote integrated activities with non-disabled Jerusalemites, in order to work towards greater social acceptance for the disabled.  A current example is a theater workshop that takes place periodically and is attended both by non-disabled Hebrew University students and CIL members.

Given what I know (hopefully to be detailed a future blog post) about the particularly great challenges faced by disabled Palestinians, as well as my awareness of the fundamental divisions between Jewish and Palestinian populations in Jerusalem, I was curious if Palestinians from East Jerusalem also came to the CIL.  When I asked, Henia told me that about 10% of participants in CIL programs and events are Palestinian.  While, on the one hand, this is a small percentage, at least it shows that the CIL provides a space for at least some integration between West and East Jerusalem populations.

I first attended an event (a film screening) at the CIL last summer, but it was not until the past few months that I became more involved and realized how much the center has to offer.  In the past couple of months, I have attended a workshop, a Purim party, and a young adult social/movie night at the CIL.  It has been a fantastic opportunity not only for me to meet Israelis and practice my Hebrew, but more importantly, to connect to a community of other people with disabilities.  I have been active for years in the disability community, but (largely because my college was located outside of a major urban area, in a place without an active disability community), my connection has been mostly via the Internet, which is far better than nothing, but still does not provide the same level of in-person solidarity as a real, live community does.  One of the downsides for me of spending these past two years in Jerusalem has been, yet again, the lack of easy access to a disability community — partly because of language barriers, and partly because the disability community in Israel is simply not as developed as it is in the States.  I am extremely grateful to have discovered the Jerusalem CIL and to be able to find social support and solidarity there during my remaining time in Israel (however short).

I also find it exciting and encouraging — though simultaneously, somewhat astonishing — how recently developed the CIL movement is in Israel.  As I mentioned previously, the Jerusalem CIL — the oldest CIL in Israel — is not quite four and a half years old.  To me, the newness of the Israeli CIL movement demonstrates simultaneously how far behind the States Israel is in terms of disability rights, and at the same time, how dramatically changes are taking place before our eyes.  Along these lines, I have observed, even in the course of my short time in Israel, significant changes in the usability of public intra-city buses for wheelchair users, as old inaccessible buses have been replaced by new ones with ramps, and drivers seem to have become more aware of accessibility procedures (that is, to put it more bluntly, most bus drivers now actually know they have ramps (!!) and I do not have to explain to them that yes, I can actually board the bus (!!), if they will only move a little closer to the curb).  I have also learned that an organization for disabled students has recently, just in the past six months, begun at Hebrew University — an exciting development that brings back memories of my own struggles to form an organization for students with disabilities when I was in college.

All in all, I am very grateful to have stumbled upon the Jerusalem CIL and to have had the opportunity to make connections with disabled Israelis.  People often ask me what life is like for people with disabilities in this part of the world, and I usually feel that I cannot give an adequate answer, because my personal experience is so limited.  Hopefully, now, I will have more to share.