By Jennifer Mizrahi
There are many amazing organizations directly serving people with disabilities in Israel. But there is one tiny but mighty nonprofit that is key to winning the battle to enable people with disabilities to participate as fully and independently as possible in regular community life. That nonprofit organization is Bizchut, an independent educational, advocacy and watchdog organization that does not take any money from the government. Extremely effective, Bizchut combines legal tools and community advocacy to fight for everyone with a disability, regardless of type or scope of disability, age, gender, ethnicity or religious background.
As the leading Israeli disability advocate watchdog, Bizchut has been responsible for groundbreaking change, such as passing the Israeli ADA law and promoting the law stipulating that 200,000 children with disabilities must be mainstreamed and study in the least restrictive environment. When our organization, RespectAbility, looks for a model of success around the world, Bizchut is at the top of the list.
To learn about Bizchut’s core priorities is an opportunity to understand some of the critical challenges for people with disabilities living in Israel today. It is also a road map for a better future. Their core projects address the most vulnerable and discriminated against populations:
- Human Rights Hotline: a telephone hotline that enables realization of rights to 1,400 people a year. They provide assistance in 15 different areas relating to rights of people with disabilities. The service includes providing information, writing and sending correspondence on behalf of the client and legal action.
- Breaking the Restraints — Rights in Psychiatric Hospitals: a project concentrating on the rights of 20,000 people who are hospitalized every year in psychiatric wards in Israel. In its first stage, the project focused on the use of mechanical restraints, revealing that one in four patients are restrained, and resulting in the publication of a report with personal testimonies, a public education campaign, and the creation of a public committee that recommended forbidding the use of mechanical restraints. The project is focusing on additional issues such as the inappropriate use of isolation rooms, procedures for involuntary hospitalization and physical conditions in psychiatric hospitals.
- Inclusion in Education: a project promoting the inclusion of children with disabilities in regular schools through support and accommodations. The project includes promoting legislation, leading a coalition and assistance to and representation of individual clients. This is my favorite piece of their work, as new evidence in neuroscience proves that early intervention and a strong education for a child with disabilities can enable their brains to literally rewire. I have seen firsthand how children with very significant disabilities can gain amazing skills and abilities that will enable them to be both be independent and great contributors to society in the future.
- Make Room for Me — the Right to Live in the Community: This project is promoting legislation of a new law that will, for the first time, establish within Israeli law the right of persons with disabilities to live in the community. This is a significant issue for people with disabilities not yet covered by legislation. The project includes raising awareness (their short movie, Taasu Makom, was seen by more than 1 million Israelis this year), promoting legislation, leading a coalition of 21 organizations and strategic litigation.
- It’s My Life — from Guardianship to Support: a project promoting the right of people with disabilities to make decisions about their own lives and takes action to limit the use of guardianship (currently 60,000 people in Israel have guardians). The project has included legal representation of individual clients, involvement in a pilot for supported decision-making, leading a coalition of 19 organizations, publication of professional reports, promoting changes in the current law, training decision-making supporters, producing informational movies, training for organizations and stakeholders around the world and more.
While all staff and key lay leaders are trained in how to welcome and respect people with disabilities, inclusion and accessibility are much more than just the technical aspects and must include the larger community. Bizchut aims to challenge accepted notions of inclusion and accessibility by raising awareness of the importance of “non-obvious” inclusion and accessibility as often as possible. For example, Bizchut workshops that train Egged bus drivers to make their services accessible to people with all disabilities include presentations by a deaf woman and a woman with an intellectual disability. For many participants this is the first time they have ever heard a person with an intellectual disability speak for themselves.
Inclusion and accessibility are cornerstones of Bizchut’s organizational vision and policy and guide their day to day work at all levels. As their mission is to enable people with all disabilities to participate as fully and independently as possible in regular community life, all programs and projects include people with disabilities, and all activities, like their offices, are open and accessible to people with disabilities while some are directed at specific disability audiences.
Bizchut’s board includes individuals with disabilities, parents of people with disabilities, men, women, Jews and Arabs, bringing a heterogeneity that reflects a truly inclusive space. While they have big work to do and are looking for partners at every level, they are already a role model for other leaders and organizations around the world who are fighting for social justice, opportunity and equality for all.
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the president of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities.