Yesh Atid Party chairman Yair Lapid, with his daughter, Yael, at her IDF graduation ceremony. Photo: Facebook.
Ariella Benshmuel – A loving embrace for people with disabilities
I have always considered myself a woman of words. Writing is my love, my passion and a tremendous part of my life. I have always believed that words can change the world. But yesterday I saw a photograph, an image that took my breath away. That put those lofty words to shame.
At a graduation ceremony for a class of people with special needs who volunteered at an IDF military base, a father placed his arms protectively around his daughter. Though she cannot express herself in words, she wore her uniform and orange beret with pride. She saluted her commander. She was excited to be a soldier. To contribute and give back to her country. And her father, in a tempest of emotion, draped his arms around her. Letting her know just how proud he is, while simultaneously wanting to shield her from the world, from its difficulties and hardships. Lending her firm and quiet support. That father happened to be MK Yair Lapid, and his daughter Yael who has autism. But this is not about politics or party affiliation. This is about people living with disabilities. And their families.
We Israelis live in a country that’s all about survival, in the most brutal sense of the word. We contend with all of the hardships that most other countries encounter, economic and otherwise, while simultaneously fighting for our lives at almost any given moment. And in that brutal, never-ending struggle we, unfortunately, tend to overlook and neglect the most vulnerable segments of our society- the elderly, the poor, and, yes-individuals with disabilities.
I know all too well what it means to live with a disability. I have had to contend with a multitude of health issues since birth. I won’t bore you with the details, but needless to say I have had to fight, kick, claw and struggle from the moment I was born. In spite of it all, however, I work, I volunteer, I write. I earned a Master’s degree in journalism. I live a full and productive and- dare I say it – happy life. I carry on in spite of the hurt, the fatigue and the pain. I push through- because I have no other choice. But it is not easy.
Israel is “no country for old men” to borrow the movie title. Life is not easy or simple for anyone living here. And if you don’t fit into the cookie- cutter mold and happen to have special needs, life is downright impossible.
Bituach Leumi disability benefits, for one, are a joke. I am sorry, but in Israel NIS 2,300 (which is the sum that a person deemed 100 percent disabled receives in Israel) buys you groceries and maybe a bus pass. What about housing? Medication ? All of those endless “extras” which people who have disabilities need-like help cleaning the house? Hearing and vision aids? A full time caretaker in some instances? All this once you have been approved for disability benefits, which is an exercise in abject humiliation. Apathetic doctors convinced that you are out to deceive them. Uncaring and unwilling to hear you, never mind to actually listen. People dragged through an endless procession of medical committees just to ensure that they receive the bare minimum that they rightfully deserve.
Healthcare, too is a major source of concern . While in theory Israel offers universal health coverage for all of its citizens and its Kupot Cholim (Health Maintenance Organizations) provide all of the health services one may need, in theory this is far from being the case. Israel’s health service providers are crumbling under the pressure of catering to the needs of an ever growing population. Hospitals are dangerously overcrowded. The bottom line is that, in order to receive adequate health care- especially if you have health concerns that are more complex than the average sore throat- you need private health insurance. And that is a substantial and unwelcome added expense, especially for individuals with disabilities.
The worst of it though, the absolute worst of it, is the lack of acceptance. Personally and professionally, it sometimes feels as though an invisible barrier is held up in front of people who have a disability, barring them from where they ought to be able to go.
Sometimes this barrier is quite physical. It’s a question of accessibility, which is still an extremely underdeveloped notion in Israel. Sometimes it’s a different kind of barrier. Ruling someone out because they are different. Because they are not quite like everyone else. In a land of “us and them” how often do we do this? And at the expense of how many groups? Those barriers- attitudinal physical or otherwise- are still there and continue to impede people with disabilities. It is imperative that we do everything within our power to remove them.
We can learn so much from individuals who live with a disability. About perseverance. About overcoming obstacles. About courage , about determination. About joy and life and the myriad of things that we take so blissfully for granted. About the indomitable and inimitable force that is the human spirit. We ought to welcome people with disabilities in all facets of our lives and our society- not only the IDF.
Today, I want to embrace Yael and her family, and salute them right back. I want to embrace all those people living with-and in spite of- a disability. We all have much to do on your behalf. We all have much to learn from you all. There are many good people advocating on behalf of those living with disabilities. Rare and wonderful individuals like Mk Ilan Gilon and MK Karin Elaharrar. But we can – and ought to- do so much more. We need to increase disability benefits to atleast minimum wage levels. We need to extend additional support – financial and otherwise – to families raising children with disabilities. The list goes on an on.
But it begins with understanding. With compassion. With empathy. With something as simple as a strong and loving embrace.