From schools to bomb shelters, Israel lagging on promise to disabled


A thick concrete bomb shelter sits by the side of a central street in this embattled southern Israeli town, but Naomi Moravia can’t get inside.

Shelters like this one are crucial in Sderot, which is located about a mile from the Gaza Strip and is the frequent target of cross-border missile attacks that send residents running for cover.

But Moravia can’t run. She can’t even get up on the sidewalk.

Pushing a lever on her wheelchair, she rolls down the street looking for a ramp or a dip in the curb that she can ascend without tipping backward.

If she can manage to reach a shelter in time, she often won’t fit inside, stymied by tight corners impossible to negotiate in a wheelchair. Of five shelters in Sderot’s central district that Moravia tried to enter recently, only one was accessible.

“If there’s a siren and I’m not in a protected room, all I can do is sit in my wheelchair and pucker my butt,” said Moravia, the chairwoman of the Israeli activist group Struggle for the Disabled. “I just wait to hear the boom. There’s nothing I can do.”

The dearth of wheelchair-accessible shelters in Sderot, officials and activists say, is emblematic of Israel’s sorry record in providing for a disabled population estimated by the government to be 1.5 million.

Despite the 1998 passage of Israel’s Law of Equal Rights for Disabled People, which promises the disabled “active and equal participation in society in all areas of life,” Israel has been lax on regulation and enforcement. Public buildings and buses often are inaccessible to those in wheelchairs. Disabled children face an unresponsive education system. And the Defense Ministry has yet to formulate regulations to accommodate the needs of the disabled.

Part of the reason is that the government agency tasked with enforcing the equal rights law, the Commission for Equal Rights of Persons with Disabilities, has an annual budget of just over $2 million and a national oversight staff of 11.

Israel has “very nice laws that will not be applied,” said Ahiya Kamara, the commission’s head.

“If we rely on enforcement, woe unto us,” said Ilan Gilon, a Knesset member from the Meretz party who helped draft the equal rights law. “A state needs to be accessible to its citizens.”

For disabled Israelis, the challenges can begin early. Elad Cohen, now 10, was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome as a toddler. As a result, his Tel Aviv public school refused to readmit him in 2006 and Elad’s mother, Revital, had to pay out of pocket for a caretaker in a private preschool.

When Elad transferred back to public school, the state offered to pay about $5 per hour to a caretaker, enough for someone with only a high-school education — a similar standard as exists in some U.S. states.

“The state wants to do two things: not tell you what your rights are, and if you know what your rights are, find any way to deny them from you,” said Revital, who consults privately for parents of disabled children.

A series of recommendations endorsed by the Education Ministry in 2009 would have afforded nearly all disabled children the right to integrate into general classrooms at public expense. But the government has applied those recommendations in only three school districts and has no timetable for implementing them nationwide.

The ministry’s director of special education, Ra’aya Levy-Goodman, told JTA the goal is for every child who would benefit from integration — and not have a detrimental effect on their classmates — to attend public school. Since 2011, she said, the number of severely disabled children integrated into regular classrooms has tripled, from 300 to 900.

“Every child who wants and who can should be in general education,” she said. “But special education isn’t a punishment, it’s a right. And there are children who need it.”

The challenges facing the disabled continue well beyond their school years. Until 2011, no regulations existed to make public buildings handicap accessible. Regulations adopted by the Ministry of Housing and Construction that year set standards for bomb shelters in a range of public structures, but full implementation was not required until 2021.

Israel’s limited but growing railway network is handicap accessible, but the more extensive bus system is not. Transit Ministry spokesman Avner Ovadia told JTA that suggestions for improved accessibility have been solicited from advocacy groups.

Home front security, though, remains the biggest gap in special needs regulations. Disability rights activists worry that the state’s intense focus on protecting its citizens has not been fully extended to the disabled, though they cannot recall any deaths due to a lack of accessibility among the more than two dozen Israeli civilians killed by rockets since 2004.

Under a provision of the equal rights law added in 2005, the state has until 2018 to implement an emergency services accessibility plan. But Israel’s government has passed an austerity budget, which could make implementation less likely.

In the meantime, the Home Front Command’s website suggests that in case of emergency, the disabled should make sure to stay in a shelter with “other people.” For assistance, the disabled are directed to turn to “relevant organizations” and their local municipalities.

As a result, much of the burden of assisting disabled Israelis in wartime has fallen to nonprofits. When Hezbollah began raining missiles on northern Israel in 2006, volunteers from the Struggle for the Disabled evacuated 500 disabled Israelis to southern hotels. The organization paid for the service through donations.

“They turned to the Welfare Ministry, and everyone from the Welfare Ministry had left their office,” said Yisrael Even Zahav, a former government consultant who coordinated the volunteers. “They were left alone.”

A Welfare Ministry spokesperson told JTA that the ministry “works extensively, without connection to regulations, to make emergency services accessible” in conjunction with government-funded group homes and regional councils.

Some activists hope that Israel’s adoption last year of the nonbinding U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities will lead to further legislation. But many are skeptical.

“It’s like a yahrtzeit,” Gilon said of the convention. “They talk about it one day and 364 days they forget about it. It doesn’t matter to most people.”

Calabasas evens playing field for special-needs kids


For children with physically limiting conditions like cerebral palsy or spinal muscular atrophy, something as simple as playing in a park can seem impossible. Swings can be unsafe, and climbing equipment is unaccommodating to many children reliant on wheelchairs and walkers for support and mobility.

Most slides, swings, forts and crawl spaces are designed for kids who can run, jump and climb. But when parks don’t factor in the limitations of special-needs children, it denies them a fundamental childhood experience.

Now the city of Calabasas is preparing a play area where the thousands of special-needs children living in the Conejo and West San Fernando valleys can play alongside all children their age. Brandon’s Village, the area’s first universally accessible handicapped playground, is scheduled to open on Oct. 28 at Gates Canyon Park on Thousand Oaks Boulevard, just east of Las Virgenes Road. Brandon’s Village is aimed at children with special needs, but the equipment is designed to be fun for everyone.

The opening of this playground — and others like it — reflects a movement spurred by parents of special-needs children who want to see their kids mainstreamed in all areas of life, from playgrounds to school to shul.

Brandon’s Village is the result of a partnership between the Las Virgenes Special Education PTA, the city of Calabasas, the Talbert Family Foundation and the Friedman Charitable Foundation. But at the center of it all has been Dina Kaplan.

Her passion to make the world accessible for her 12-year-old son, Brandon, who has multiple physical and developmental disabilities, has been the catalyst for a fundamental shift in how Calabasas looks at the children who play in its parks.

“In order to be an ADA-accessible playground, all that [cities] have to provide is access to get to the playground, like a ramp from the parking lot. They don’t have to provide access to the equipment,” said Kaplan, referring to the Americans With Disabilities Act. Fully accommodating equipment has not been the focus of playground planning, she pointed out, because most people don’t understand the need. “They don’t have kids with disabilities. It was just something they didn’t think about or know about,” she said.
Brandon’s Village joins eight other universally accessible playgrounds in the Los Angeles area, including Shane’s Inspiration in Griffith Park, Neil Papiano Play Park at the Los Angeles Zoo, Aiden’s Place at Westwood Park and Parque de los Suenos in East Los Angeles. Another playground for the East San Fernando Valley is currently under construction at El Cariso Park in Sylmar.

However, it was the Griffith Park playground, which opened in 1998 and was the first of its kind in Los Angeles, that inspired Kaplan’s vision for Brandon’s Village.

“Brandon had gone to Shane’s Inspiration when he was 5, and I’ve always wanted to bring that kind of playground to my community,” said Kaplan, a special-education attorney and executive director of The K.E.N. Project, a nonprofit that helps explain laws designed to protect special-needs children to parents and professionals.

Such playgrounds allow children with limited physical abilities to enjoy playing by themselves alongside typical children. Park features include high-backed swings; wheelchair-accessible modular play areas; a spongy, wheelchair-friendly ground covering; and low-lying slides and crawl spaces. Additional traditionally sized forts, slides and climbing opportunities make these mixed-use destinations popular among all children.

Kaplan and Joann Melancon, both cofounders of Las Virgenes Special Education PTA, first approached the city of Calabasas with the Brandon’s Village idea more than three years ago. The two mothers, both Jewish, took Jeff Rubin, the city’s community services director, on a field trip with other parents to visit Shane’s Inspiration.

Melancon said that she and Kaplan laid the groundwork together slowly, taking their time and building support.

“It ended up being a huge community building project. All over, people would ask what they could do to help,” she said. “People would be on the golf course talking about the project.”

While approval from the city was easy to come by, funding for the project initially proved more difficult. After Brandon’s Village was turned down for a grant by the state, Kaplan was despondent. Her brother-in-law, mortgage banker Bruce Friedman, asked her how much she needed.

“I said ‘I need a million dollars’ really flippantly, like it was 50 cents, and he said ‘OK.’ I was shocked,” she said.

Last January, Friedman and his wife, Wendy, donated $1 million from their Friedman Charitable Foundation, which funds children’s programs and scholarships for college-bound seniors. The donation is the largest in the history of Calabasas.

Once the money was in place, officials broke ground in May.

Brandon’s Village was created by Shane’s Inspiration, the nonprofit that established the eponymous Griffith Park playground in 1998 to honor Shane Williams, son of organization founders Catherine Curry-Williams and Scott Williams. Shane died from spinal muscular atrophy a few weeks after birth. Had he lived, he would have spent his life confined to a wheelchair.

Shane’s Inspiration has completed 10 playgrounds and has 55 in development around the world.
Tiffany Harris, executive director of Shane’s Inspiration, said that park planners need to put themselves in the body of a child with disabilities as they consider designs.

“I think they really need to stop for a minute and consider giving able-bodied children the opportunity to socialize with [special-needs children],” she said. “It really does become a wonderful opportunity to integrate these two populations and dispel some of the myths.”

For Calabasas, the addition of the playground to Gates Canyon Park is a source of pride.

This playground is “going to stand for the way this community and this region reacts toward kids with special needs,” then-Calabasas Mayor Barry Groveman said during a ceremony to honor the Friedmans’ donation in January.

“What I found so thrilling about the project is not simply what it does to enhance kids with special needs, but what it does for able-bodied kids” when they all play together, he said.

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