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The Equality for People with Disabilities Law 1998: at the Crossroads between Charity and Right – Dr. Dina Feldman April 2, 2010

Posted by jewishdisabilityunite in Society.
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“You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Rabbi Akiva said: This is a central principle of the Torah.

Ben Azai said: “This is the Book of the History of Man… the Lord created him in the image of God.” This is a greater principle still.

Until that legal happening of the winter of 1998, the enactment of the Law of Equality for People with Disabilities, most of the 10% of Israel’s citizens who live with disability, lived as “Other”, “hidden”, “demonic” citizens. They were entitled to certain special benefits – “social rights” – but nonetheless were effectively hidden away within an inaccessible society.

“Other”, “hidden”, “demonic”, mean being denied the right to a full life in the community, equal opportunities at work, integration, and access to those other human rights that should belong to all of us in all areas of our lives. Without these rights, people are denied the opportunity to take social responsibility, an essential ingredient for building up a sense of belonging and commitment to the community. Only with these rights can a person really feel herself to be a citizen of her county, and be seen as such by others.

The hiddenness of people with disabilities is evident even in Israel’s Declaration of Independence (1948). In this Declaration, the new State acknowledged the danger that certain groups may be disadvantaged or discriminated against within it. In response to this, it voiced the need to take action to establish the right to equality, to a life of dignity, to liberty and honest labour, for all of Israel’s citizens. This was stated in relation to categories of religion, race and gender – completely ignoring the large minority of people with disabilities, many of whom were, for many years, consigned to residential institutions.

A similar effect arose in the Law of Equal Opportunities at Work (1988) – Paragraph 2a. The law prohibits discrimination between workers and between applicants on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, personal or family status, age, race, religion, nationality, origin, political orientation, army credentials or the likelihood of being called up for reserve duty – but not on the basis of disability. This despite the immeasurably high unemployment rate among people with disabilities, in comparison to any other group one might care to mention.

“The Ideal Body”; “the Desired Image”

We may surmise that the exclusion of the disabled population at that time, stemmed largely from the developing Israeli collective’s need to deny the existence of a large sector of society seemingly suffering from “defects”. From the desire that prevailed at that time, to grasp on to a yearned-for, wholesome image of the “new Jew”, now being resurrected in the Land of Israel. This social tendency, indeed, is still with us today, and seems to be a direct product of the preference for “the desired body”, which Israeli society aspires to establish as the antithesis of the life of Exile. Israelis are highly concerned with fertility – but for the birth of healthy children only. The secular Israeli public locates itself on a moral slippery slope, laid out by advances in gene technology and overstepping the right they acquire for them, to define what “quality of life” might be. Israel’s crossing of the point of no return is discernable in the fact that a failure to carry out tests to for genetic defects may today be considered medical negligence, and the grounds for a judicial claim of “wrongful birth”.

Over a long period, then, Israel’s society and government have chosen to grant people with disabilities chessed – kindness – investing huge sums of money in the effort, while failing to lift a finger to remove the obstacles that prevent people with disabilities fulfilling their rights as equal citizens, and becoming fully integrated into society. The same is true in relation to equal opportunities at work: in this case the tendency to ignore the issue seems to reflect society’s lack of faith in the capacity of differently abled people to make an active contribution to the social life of the State, or to the employment market. This particularly touches upon those people who receive National Insurance benefits, and who were disabled at birth or in non-heroic circumstances. These people receive maintenance payments on the grounds of handicap, and of their inability to earn a living themselves. Many people believe that this leads, in the long term, to a decrease in motivation to enter the employment market, which would disqualify them from the benefit system.

Those, on the other hand, who have been rendered disabled by the Holocaust or during their military service, and now also those injured in terror attacks, who carry a more heroic aura now than in the past, enjoy a privileged status among the differently abled. This finds expression in special social rights and in a guarantee of equal opportunities in higher education, employment and all other areas of life. This privileged approach is demonstrated in the higher levels of integration these groups show in relation to other recipients of the disability allowance. State controller report 252 (2002) points out that this is due mostly to the addressing of individual needs, and not to the application of principles of social justice. The Social Justice ideology is characterized by a lack of discrimination on the basis of disability, and by the advancement of equality and integration as independent values. This vision would entail, among other things, a reasonable level of physical accessibility and social awareness, as played out in the attitudes of people, in buildings and in infrastructure, in public spaces and services; accessibility and awareness that, in the State of Israel, are almost non-existent.

The same trend is evident in the 2003 study carried out by the Commission for Equality, on the subject of accessibility in educational, health-care, bank and shopping-centre buildings, and likewise in their 2005 study of public attitudes to people with disabilities. The Israeli public is prepared to perform numerous acts of charity, and is to be admired for this, but so far it has showed no inclination towards justice.

“Deaf”, “Idiot” and “Minor”

This social attitude has a strong basis in monotheism. In the halakha, as in other religious systems, a person “without intellect” occupies a considerably problematic position with regard to his obligation in the commandments and to his right to participation in communal life. Questions are raised as to whether these people are obligated by the commandments, public and private, what their status may be in marriage and divorce, whether they are obliged to “be fruitful and multiply”, whether a contract signed with them is valid, whether they may be regarded as property owners and whether one requires their permission to use their belongings.

Jewish legal writings reveal that people with disabilities are accorded partial social obligations, decided mainly by the level of understanding ascribed to the individual by the legal authority in question. People with physical or sensual impairments who have full use of their mental faculties are subjected to the same approach. Legal authorities and community leaders are still captive to the “ideal body” image of the “Chosen People”, and unaware of the vast effect that could be achieved by an education adapted to technological advances, education to the values of accessibility, and the removal of stigmas, which could completely change the face of the realities of life as a differently abled person, and of her ability to integrate into and contribute to society in every area. Today it seems essential to re-evaluate, with all the social courage needed, the possibility of returning religious and social responsibilities to people with disabilities, and of affording them the physical and social access that would allow them to take full part in the community and to contribute to it, independently and with full dignity.

“Accessible”, “Independent” and “Dignified”

The 1998 Law of Equal Rights for Persons with Disabilities utterly rejects the common claim that the difficulties people with disabilities have to integrate into society proceed from weaknesses of those people. Instead it ascribes the blame to the ways in which society has blocked disabled peoples’ access to integration and success. The law looks Israeli society squarely in the eye and demands that it recognize people with disabilities as a group with the capacity and the right to dignified lives, to dignity and to honest employment. All this grounded in independence and human rights; no longer upon favours, kindnesses and charity. Let us recall that there is nothing new in this idea; that this is the command inscribed in Ben Azai’s favoured verse – “This is the Book of the History of Man…”

The Law of Equal Rights sees in people with any disability, full citizens like every other. These people, like all others, may exercise their rights, and receive services designed with maximum consideration for their lives, with full attention paid to their human dignity and freedom, and in protection of their privacy. This within the framework of the services offered to all citizens, which should be adapted appropriately like all other public services – of a high enough quality, within a reasonable time-frame and at a reasonable distance from each person’s home, giving him full rights to make his own decisions with regard to his life, in accordance with his own will and preferences. It is no longer acceptable, then, to discriminate against a person on grounds of disability, either in selection for employment, or in his conditions of employment, promotion or redundancy, as long as he is qualified for the job. The law also stipulates that all public buildings and institutes, including those privately owned, must be made accessible to people with all forms of disability within 6-12 years. This is an enormous challenge to all of us, requiring awareness, organization and a deep commitment to bring back to the fold this minority which is part of us, “flesh of our flesh”. It is the law. It is possible. It must happen.