Why changing public opinion on disability matters

A man with special needs studies during a course. (Courtesy: Alei Siach)

Rising coronavirus case numbers and rumors of a third lockdown. Mandatory state-run hotel quarantine for travelers returning to Israel from the UK. The looming deadline for a national budget, which may send the Jewish state to a fourth round of elections in two years.

Between all of these breaking news stories, it’s likely that you missed a small survey about the Israeli public’s attitude towards people with disabilities.

But the survey, conducted by Hebrew University’s a-Chord Center for Social Psychology, speaks volumes about a massive sea change in opinions about disability, and the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on the Israeli psyche.

The survey found that public opinion towards people with disability have improved significantly in recent years. Why does this matter? Because public opinion on people with disabilities has a “trickle-up” effect.

We might think of the Knesset as some nebulous, abstract force. In reality, the Knesset is made up of Israeli citizens, who, like all of us, are affected by their personal experiences and biases. This means that common ideas around disability naturally end up shaping governmental policy on a macro scale.

For example, just 8 percent of survey respondents said they believe people with disabilities take advantage of state benefits programs. This is a fantastic development, as it shows a shift away from the belief that disabled people who are dependent on government stipends are “moochers.”

It’s safe to assume that Knesset members hold beliefs which are roughly equivalent to that of the general population. Now, let’s imagine that the survey found that 92 percent of Israelis believe that disabled people are “gaming the system.”

It’s obvious that such a belief would affect legislative policy, in everything from what conditions qualify a person as “disabled” to how much of a stipend disabled people should receive. Because the average citizen’s opinion is changing, it’s likely that attitudes held by those in power are also evolving.

Another significant finding from the survey is that Israelis appear to be aware of how the coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately affected people with disabilities.

Before the pandemic, just 57 percent of Israeli adults with disabilities worked, compared to nearly 96 percent of the general population.

A different study commissioned by the Justice Ministry’s Commission for Equal Rights of Persons with Disabilities found that since March 2020, Israelis with disabilities were four times more likely to have been placed on unpaid leave or fired than their counterparts.

The average Israeli seems to recognize this injustice, with 96 percent of the Hebrew University survey respondents opposing the idea of firing employees with disabilities ahead of firing those without them.

Additionally, 81 percent of survey respondents said that they had reached out to a disabled neighbor and asked them if they needed help during the last few months.

This is an excellent sign, as it demonstrates that Israelis feel that their fellow citizens who are living with disabilities are members of their community, rather than wards of the state.

It may also indicate that more disabled Israelis are living in community-based frameworks, rather than closed institutions, which is a critical step for inclusion and integration.

I’ve been working for three decades to ensure that Israelis with disabilities are viewed as important and valued members of Israeli society, and I welcome the results of this Hebrew University survey as a sign that progress has been made in this area.

During these challenging days, in a time when divisions within Israeli society are running higher than ever, this survey should serve as a beacon of hope. The first step to healing is recognizing the humanity of others, and we are well on our way.

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Perkal is the Director and Founder of Alei Siach, a Jerusalem-based nonprofit organization providing all-inclusive solutions for people living with special needs and their families.
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