British-born Israeli STEVE BLOOMBERG will never forget the unpleasant experience he had a few months ago while visiting the northern city of Tiberius on the shores of Lake Kinneret.
“All I wanted to do was use the bathroom,” he begins. “But after trying a few places, I discovered that the city center, which is the heart of the tourist area, does not have even one accessible toilet!”
Bloomberg, who was severely injured in a terrorist attack 10 years ago and is today confined to a wheelchair, describes how he tried in vain to find a suitable bathroom in Tiberius but to no avail.
He adds, with frustration: “It does not seem like it’s a big job to just widen the division of the plastic walls between each stall, but obviously it is just not that high on the municipality’s priority list.”
“Every day in Israel I have another difficult incident; usually it’s where the bathroom is concerned.” He lists an array of situations in which his disability has prevented him from participating more fully in life or visiting places like anybody else.
While Bloomberg’s difficult experience in Tiberius and his daily discomfort visiting some of Israel’s more famous tourist sites are shared by many people with disabilities, efforts made over the past few years have made travel to Israel for people with disabilities easier than ever before.
Over the past two years, Israel’s Tourism Ministry has invested more than 2.5 million shekels (about $600,000) in making dozens of national parks, museums, heritage and religious sites more accessible to people with disabilities.
Among the places that have been revamped are the northern beauty spot of Rosh Hanikra, which recently had an elevator installed (at a cost of about $250,000), the army memorial at Latrun and the historic desert fortress of Masada. And, says the ministry, over the coming years there are plans to invest, together with the National Insurance Institute, a total of 6.5 million shekels (about $1.6 million) in accessible tourism.
“The issue of access for people with disabilities to tourist attractions and leisure sites is one of the special areas of investment made by the Ministry of Tourism,” Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov told The Jewish Week. “We believe that every person, regardless of his or her limitations, is entitled to enjoy Israel’s attractive tourism product.”
As the Tourism Ministry continues to move forward with its plans, the nonprofit organization Access Israel, which advocates the rights of people with disabilities, commends with caution the improvements that have been made over the past few years.
“There is some optimism,” says Access Israel’s founder and director, Yuval Wagner, who is himself wheelchair-bound. “I know we still have a long way to go to improve the situation, but visiting Israel today is much easier than in the past.”
According to Wagner, whose organization provides vast information (mostly in Hebrew) on accessible sites in Israel, there are three basic components people with disabilities face when they travel here. He counts them off one by one.
The first hurdle, he notes, relates to airline travel. Today, observes Wagner, the airlines are more helpful than ever before, and they must meet international laws pertaining to accessibility.
“Most of the problems start when a person arrives in Israel,” he says, describing difficulties disabled travelers face getting from the airport to the chosen destinations, because of a lack of accessible taxis and rental cars.
“They are hard to find and expensive,” states Wagner, adding, “There is only one company that rents cars with hand control, and that has to be coordinated in advance.”
Despite problems with internal travel in Israel, the NGO has been working hard to collate information on accessible hotels and tourist spots. Today, most of Israel’s hotels have accessible rooms, and historic sites, museums and other attractions are much improved in recent years.
“There are many options for people who want to go out and do some sightseeing” says Wagner. He urges travelers to do as much advance research as they can, so there are no surprises.