Is Accessibility Of Public Spaces So Impossible?

Beth SteinbergBy: Beth Steinberg

As I skied down that gorgeous piste on January 27th, I wasn’t considering that I was about to make myself a living monument to Jewish Disability Awareness Month. That came a few days later, after I fell, had been surgically repaired and was hobbling down the hallways on my brand new crutches in the lovely little hospital in rural Sallanche, France, in the shadow of the majestic Mont Blanc.

Jay Ruderman is fond of saying “everyone in their lifespan will experience disability in one way or another.” He explains further, “people with disabilities are…the one minority group that we will all join one day as we age.” Sobering. A sub-group that we are all likely to experience, whether because of illness, injury or some other aspect of the aging process.

Before you go and stick your head in the sand, consider some facts about disability. People with disabilities are the largest minority group worldwide, an estimated 1 billion people. This is a number that will grow, by the way, as the world’s population grows and as medicine helps us live longer. As a matter of fact, in countries where the life expectancy is over 70 years, people may experience disability for an average of 8 years, or 11.5 percent of their life span. Compelling, no?

I didn’t need to fall that day in order to understand disability. Quite frankly, as a parent to a child who walked at the age of 6, and who continues to need significant assistance navigating his life, I get what disability is about. And yet, to experience firsthand the problems of “crutching” around Jerusalem is to remind myself in a truly palpable way of the challenges that people with physical disabilities in particular experience every day, in a city that is probably one of the least accessible in the world.

Yes, I know that Jerusalem was built 2000 years ago. I get that its infrastructure was not exactly designed by an urban planner and that roads that wind and climb were originally made for mules, not cars. But it’s 2014, and Israel is a country where a certain percentage of soldiers become disabled due to war and army service, separate from those who develop disabilities at different points in their lives and those born with disabilities. It’s time to step up to the plate and force compliance in Jerusalem, as well as in the rest of the country and worldwide, certainly in countries with the ability to support such efforts.

Just recently I was in my favorite local sushi restaurant. On the surface it seemed accessible, that is until I asked to use the restroom, which was down a few stairs. What got left out of the architectural plans and what official signed off allowing the space to open when laws have been set into place that require handicapped accessibility? It boggles the mind.

Beth Steinberg walkingI’ll bet that almost every restaurant on Jerusalem’s popular Emek Refaim stretch lacks accessible restrooms, let alone accessible entrance ways and pathways. And that goes for one which recently underwent a lovely renovation. On my first visit, I noted that the bathroom is up a flight of stairs. I haven’t gone back.

That’s not all. In Jerusalem, ramps are built at the kind of angles that nobody would want to use them without fear of hurting themselves.  Walking paths are continually built from a polished Jerusalem stone that becomes slippery to the point of being downright dangerous during winter rains. And sidewalks remain the favorite place for parking one’s car – never mind pedestrians, babies in strollers, wheelchairs and yes, people on crutches.

Jerusalem, of course, is not alone. For the nine years that we pushed a stroller/wheelchair in urban Brooklyn and NYC we struggled with a mass transit system that wasn’t completely accessible (especially then), as well as with uneven sidewalks and inadequate ramp cuts. I still have lingering elbow problems from maneuvering through snow, over ice, up staircases and through the crowds, in small shops so crowded and narrow I had to leave. I’ve traveled throughout Europe and wondered at the continued inability of major cities – think Rome, Paris and London – to make their cities, their public spaces, their mass transit systems completely accessible. Each one, especially when it comes to mass transit, has complicated access points for anyone dealing with any kind of significant physical disability. If you’ve ever shlepped a suitcase up and down the staircases in the London Underground you know what I’m talking about.

As for me, I’m still getting a handle on this crutches thing. I’ve gone out just a bit since I got home and even the trip to my local health clinic wasn’t exactly a walk in the park, located as it is on a steep street with tough sidewalk access from the car. I’d like to get into work but I’m worried about the elevator to the 4th floor, it doesn’t always work, and the entrance into the building, not so perfectly pitched, and our flooring is a bit uneven.  I have a presentation I’m making next week – hoping to find a way to get into the building safely, otherwise I won’t be able to go. Forget about my favorite locations, like the outdoor market, Machane Yehuda, and even my new coffee place around the corner, down a flight of stairs. Until I get more secure handling stairs, it’s just not worth the risk.

But it’s only a couple of months. By April, I should be up on two feet, working at therapy and getting myself back to my crazy schedule of two jobs, working out a few times a week and generally running myself ragged. Because I will be able to – thankfully. What if I couldn’t? Quite frankly, I’d be considering moving out of Jerusalem.

So next time you think to yourself, “We don’t have any people with disabilities in our neighborhood,” consider the possibility that they’re shut into their houses because they’re simply unable to maneuver local streets and byways safely. I say it’s time for a change.

Beth Steinberg is the executive director and co-founder of Shutaf, offering year-round, inclusive informal-education programs for children and teens with disabilities in Jerusalem. Shutaf is committed to a teaching model that welcomes all children – with and without disabilities – regardless of educational, religious and socio-economic differences. Engage Shutaf on Twitter, Like them on Facebook, learn more about inclusion on their blog or, if you love pictures, follow them on Pinterest!

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Filed under Disabilities rights

4 responses to “Is Accessibility Of Public Spaces So Impossible?

  1. Reblogged this on Coffee Shop Rabbi and commented:
    I read this post with tears in my eyes. I spent a year in Jerusalem in school, hobbling around on a cane, or on bad days, crutches. I had come to study, but the bulk of my energy that year had to go into simply getting around. Now that my disability has progressed, I think often about visiting and then sigh, because even the thought is exhausting. I love Jerusalem with all my heart, but every step outside my apartment was a struggle. As a Diaspora Jew, I am hesitant to criticize too much, but as a Diaspora Jew whose heart longs for more time b’aretz, I am very glad to hear an Israeli voice speaking up.

    Reblogged as a thought-provoking closer to Jewish Disability Month.

    • I hear you. I know a family who made aliyah about a year ago. I advised them a bit – they have 3 kids, one who uses a wheelchair. I strongly recommended against Jerusalem and after a short visit, the dad realized I was right. Why struggle? I’d say that perhaps you could visit Jerusalem with a motorized cart but even then, as you express (and me too), you’d struggle in a variety of places. I’m sorry that Jerusalem remains inaccessible to you.

  2. Thanks, Beth, for reminding us that disability is an issue for all of us. Hope you heal quickly.

    • Thanks Jo Ann. It’s just not so hard to make the world more accessible and for all of us to be more aware. In a city like Jerusalem, I get it, it is more complicated for a host of reasons – it’s an ancient city, it wasn’t planned but in new spaces, worldwide, we must step up to the plate and get it right.

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