I am excited about Karin Elharar entering the Knesset. In order to understand why, I invite you to engage in a very simple exercise. The next time you find yourself out and about—strolling in your neighborhood, shopping, wherever—take five minutes in which you pay close attention to the terrain. Ask yourself “could I navigate this if I were in a wheelchair”. If the answer is “no”, your next step is to figure out what your wheelchair-bound self would need to do in order to get to its destination.
I did this last Saturday as I walked from my home in San Simon to Emek Refaim. All went well until I got to about 100 meters before my destination. A car was parked on the sidewalk right next to a fire hydrant. No passage was possible. If this had been a real wheelchair and not an imaginary one, I would have been forced to return to the last intersection, cross the road, and try my luck on the sidewalks there. What makes this particularly egregious is that San Simon is home to Ma’on San Simon for the Disabled. In my neighborhood, a person in a wheelchair is a common sight, though until last Saturday, it was not entirely clear to me why so many of them insist on operating their wheelchairs on the roads instead of on the sidewalks. It makes a lot more sense now.
This lack of accessibility is a mere reflection of the real problem—that in general our society relates to people with disabilities as invalids and as peripheral members of society. We expect them to stay at home. We expect them to be non-productive. We expect them to be supported by Bituach Leumi. Yes, of course, we give lip service to the concepts of equal rights and equal access to employment, opportunities and services. There are laws on the books and besides, it is the right thing to do! But the laws are not overly enforced and when push comes to shove, how much do we really care? After all, it’s not little gremlins that are parking their cars smack in the middle of sidewalks, not hiring people with disabilities and opening (and patronizing) restaurants with closet-sized bathrooms perched at the top of steep flights of stairs.
Have you ever stopped to think about where all the disabled people go? Between naturally occurring physical limitations, accidents, the army and terror attacks, there is certainly no shortage. And just because one’s body does not function properly it does not necessarily follow that one lacks intelligence. (My hearing is crap, but that does not impact my intellect, just my volume level). But when was the last time you saw a wheelchair in an office environment? I have been here 11 years and have worked in several large companies. To date, I have seen one.
Here is another exercise: imagine that tomorrow you are injured in a car wreck and you find yourself in a wheelchair as a result. How much of your life would you be able to keep? Would you be able to go back to your current place of employment? Would you be able to eat at your favorite restaurant? Would you even be able to live in the same neighborhood?
This state of affairs is simply wrong. It is also a flat-out stupid waste of resources. Think of all the smart people we are trapping at home. If Stephen Hawking lived here instead of in the UK, he would probably be scraping by on a tiny disability pension and spending fair portions of his free time playing in traffic because the Municipality neglected to make the crosswalk curbs wheelchair-accessible.
So where does Karin Elharar come in? Well, first of all, she is in a wheelchair. While there is no guarantee that a wheelchair bound Knesset member will serve as a champion for those with disabilities, given that she is currently employed as Director of the Bar Ilan University Disability Rights Clinic, in this particular instance I think the odds are pretty good. Fighting for equality is what this woman does ; the Knesset just provides her with a bigger and better “ bully pulpit”. From here she will be better able to push for new laws, enforcement of existing laws, support for public awareness campaigns and the development of better and more responsive Bituach Leumi policies and programs.
I hope she kicks some serious ass. We need it.
This is the second in a series of posts on some of our new Knesset members. Next week’s subject is as yet undecided. Suggestions are welcome.