It's easy to ignore the disabled
Date: Wednesday, February 04, 2009 @ 10:36:24 EST
Topic: Cognation

Michael Handelzalts

The party of the physically disabled, "Koach L'hashpia" ("The power to influence"), is running in the coming parliamentary election for the first time, and even if they do not get a seat (there is a very slim chance they will) they managed to catch the public's attention with their posters on billboards all over the country: a photomontage of Ehud Barak, Benjamin Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni (from right to left) seated in wheelchairs. The writing on the billboard translates roughly to "suddenly, you can't ignore the disabled anymore."

As one who spent most of his adult life on his feet and now moves around on an electric scooter (a kind of a wheelchair powered by an electric battery), I can attest that switching from someone who can stand on his own to someone who needs an accessory to keep rolling along does indeed change one's point of view.

It is not only the simple fact that you become at once about 50 centimeters lower, and all those around you have to bow or crouch to talk to you; it is not only that suddenly so many places that were easily accessible become out of bounds (offices, theaters, and ever so often getting from the sidewalk to the road just to cross it); it is not only that your mobility is severely challenged and you have to rely on the kindness of strangers and friends.

All those are practical problems to be negotiated, and I'm not even mentioning the mental adjustment to the label "disabled", "handicapped" or even "invalid" (as if you suddenly have lost your validity). It is also the fact that the moment you sit in a wheelchair the people around you tend to think that you are handicapped not only in your body, but also in your mind.

I very much doubt that Livni, Barak or Netanyahu will ever sit in a wheelchair even just for the sake of getting the feel of it (they are far too busy in sharing the credit or blame for the Gaza operation, and anyway, are contesting very different seats). But I suggest you try the following experiment: Get a wheelchair and a friend who will push you and also serve as a witness.

You will find out very soon that people tend to address the person who pushes the wheelchair, and speak about you in third-person singular. "Can he walk?" the security person at Ben-Gurion airport asked my wife who traveled with me and my scooter.

It is, of course, the smallest problem the physically disabled have to face, and I hasten to add that my personal handicap is much less severe than that of many others who bear the badge or burden of being "disabled" or "challenged." But I can bear witness to the fact that you can, quite easily, ignore the disabled on a day-to-day basis, and that is not necessarily out of malice or callousness. The "able," (as opposed to "disabled"), or "valid," human nature has built-in self-defense systems that "allow" you to disregard the disabled around you. You have simply to look the other way. It has to be said, though, that many do offer me their assistance and ask if I need help, and sometimes it is the disabled person (i.e. me) who has difficulty in accepting the help offered.

But in order to get the people in power to understand what it means to be physically disabled, it is not enough to put them in a wheelchair using photoshop software. They have to spend some time in a wheelchair, get used to the fact that they are totally dependent on it, and then let them experience how it feels when the wheelchair is no longer there, and nothing - okay, maybe all the king's horses and all the king's men - can put them on their legs on again.

There is no chance in the world that this will ever happen, and I myself would not be thinking about it had my electric scooter not been stolen last Friday, in the early evening, from the entrance of my house, where it stood folded and chained to the bicycle stand.

Whoever nicked it entered the lobby (the lock on the door is quite easy to pick), and cut the chain using a heavy-duty steel cutter. He (or she or they) couldn't have missed the fact that they were stealing something that belongs to a disabled person. The two very nice policemen who came to see the "crime scene" asked me if I'm at odds with any of my neighbors (I'm most definitely not). They thought that it was not a "haphazard theft," but that those who cut the chain knew what they were after. But even a person as paranoid as I am does not assume that it was my personal scooter they wanted.

I know that people are stealing metal all over the country, but if metal was what they were after, why did they take only my scooter (which has only a metal frame) and not the bicycles that were chained to the same stand? And what will the thief do with the scooter without its battery? Is there a black market for scooter parts? Will I get a phone call from the West Bank with someone offering to sell me my scooter, at a specially reduced price just for me?

Yes, I know that it is a trifle. There are rockets on Sderot, and there was the Gaza operation, which left the civilian population there sitting among heaps of rubble left by the mighty Israel Defense Forces, and the Israelis refuse to be surprised or moved by it. The policemen told me that nothing surprises them anymore.

The sad truth is that it is quite easy to ignore others, and it did not happen all of a sudden. It is the way of human nature, and such is the way Israeli society had been meandering on for quite some time. We learned in time how to ignore our fellow men, and practice makes perfect. Why, it's quite easy to ignore the disabled.


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