Every year, December 3rd marks the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, emphasizing their equal rights to participate fully in all areas of life, just like other citizens.
Ensuring the participation of people with disabilities in society is not only a matter of basic human rights, but also an essential condition for socio-economic development. It is an investment in the future of each and every one of us. Therefore, as someone who has been working in this field for some time, I have mixed feelings about the International Day of Persons with Disabilities.
This population, which is the largest minority in the world, faces many challenges that are not always seen or understood by society. That’s why this day is so important: to raise awareness and strive for solutions. However, the need for this annual event shows how deep the problem is and how long the road to the full participation of people with disabilities in society.
The global crisis brought on by the Coronavirus suddenly interrupted the routine of people with disabilities and led to a change in reality that persists to this day. The situation exacerbated inequality and exposed the depth of social and economic exclusion. These days the challenge is not only to stay healthy, but also to remain a functional part of society. In Israel, we see the profound effects of the pandemic on people with disabilities in many walks of life.
A Feeling of Loneliness
According to Myers-JDC-Israel’s “Facts and Figures: People with Disabilities in Israel 2018,” about 17% of people with disabilities said they do not have friends with whom they meet or talk on the phone. This year, a survey among participants in our programs found that 60% experienced increasing loneliness due to social distancing and confinement at home. Other surveys indicate a similar trend.
Digital Literacy and Access to Information
According to “Facts and Figures: People with Disabilities in Israel 2018,” 41% of people with disabilities do not use a computer and 26% do not use the Internet. The main obstacles are (a) the cost of equipment and communications; (b) lack of access to a computer or the Internet; (c) lack of technical skills. In today’s reality, digital literacy and access to information provide a ticket to social and economic participation. Without them, feelings of loneliness and isolation will increase.
Students with Disabilities
The need for social distancing and remote learning have far-reaching implications beyond the education system (family, health, welfare). Although some mitigating activities are in the works, varying capabilities and needs make it difficult to provide an appropriate response to students with disabilities.
Data from the Commission for Equal Rights for Persons with Disabilities surveyed by the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute this year show a sharp drop in employment among people with disabilities. While 41% were unemployed in February, the figure jumped to 62% in October. There is concern that they will also be the last to return to the work force. If there is no significant improvement, the achievements of recent years will go down the drain. Unemployment also affects older people with disabilities, having a negative impact on both their physical and mental health.
At Joint-Israel Unlimited, we seek to increase equal opportunity and bridge social and economic gaps. For the past year and a half, we have been reassessing the challenge of independent living for people with disabilities. After a comprehensive review, we defined three key indicators that require systematic change: economic resilience, belonging, and independence.
The enormous changes in reality due to COVID-19 create an opportunity. Together with our partners in government and the social and business sectors, among others, we have mapped out a strategy that could have a significant impact on this population in light of the current situation. The strategy includes the following elements:
Personalization of Services
Development of a personalized response, based on the wishes and needs of the person with a disability. This includes improving coordination among government ministries, adjusting budgets, and supporting decision-making and planning for each person to increase autonomy and participation in society.
Independent Housing in the Community
Every person has the right to choose where they live. We should promote and accelerate the development of independent housing in the community so that people with disabilities can exercise this right, choose their lifestyle and remain protected.
Community and Belonging
Loneliness is one of the main things that prevent people with disabilities from integrating and living independently within the community. Creating informal networks in the community will expand the social participation of this population beyond institutional and formal frameworks.
The social distancing forced upon us by the pandemic has accelerated technological solutions for everyday needs in an accessible and user-friendly way. This enables managing one’s life virtually, including public services, care, shopping, employment opportunities, training, social contacts and more. If we make these platforms more accessible to people with disabilities, then it will open a new window for self-fulfillment.
For the past nine years, I’ve had the privilege of being part of the Joint-Israel Unlimited team. During this time, I have helped advance important issues such as independent housing, medical care, and development of solutions for people with more than one disability. I have witnessed a growing understanding of the rights of people with disabilities to be part of the community.
I began my role as director general of Joint-Israel Unlimited when the first lockdown began. Unfortunately, despite some progress, I realized that people with disabilities were again absent from the public discourse during the pandemic; and when they were discussed, it was accompanied by stigmas.
It is important to realize the potential of this point in time as a shared experience of uncertainty and struggle. We have a unique opportunity to get the most out of this situation by shaping a more inclusive and accessible society.