Coronavirus pandemic should change how we look at disability


The coronavirus pandemic has forced Israelis to make profound changes. Weddings and bar mitzvahs have been canceled. Handshakes and hugs have disappeared overnight. And it’s not just individuals who are needing to make big changes.

In light of social distancing requirements, workplaces that required employees to be physically present in the office each day are quickly adapting to a telecommuting system, in which employees and managers communicate via Zoom, email, and messaging apps.

Similarly, Israeli HMOs are encouraging people to use telehealth services, rather than requiring that patients physically visit clinics for things like prescriptions and test results. More medical services are available through in-home visits by paramedics than ever before.

These are some of the critical accommodations that the special-needs community and disability justice advocates have been battling for, both in the legal and private spheres, over the course of many years.

It took a pandemic and mandatory guidelines set forth by the Ministry of Health, but workplaces, businesses, and the public health field have proved that they’re fully capable of making significant changes centered around an “at-home” model.

Rather than scrambling to keep up with the times, we see that Israeli society can gracefully adapt to this new reality.

People living with physical disabilities and chronic illnesses have been told time and time again that workplaces cannot make work-from-home adjustments for them, but it is now clear that Israeli companies can be more flexible than previously believed. But after the pandemic ends, shouldn’t some of these temporary adjustments remain in place as permanent options, leading to more inclusion of special-needs people in the workplace and more at-home services for those who need them?

As the founder of a nonprofit organization that serves people living with their disabilities and their families, I would love to see full integration of people with special needs into mainstream Israeli society. While we’ve made huge strides towards this goal over the last three decades, change will not happen solely from the actions of disability advocates — it will happen because of people in the mainstream who are willing to make adjustments for those who are differently-abled.

In the business world, where millions of shekels are at stake, many workplaces operate as conservatively as possible, afraid to make adjustments that deviate from the norm, both in hiring and internal office policies, for fear of losing money.

Similarly, the health field in Israel understandably embraces tried-and-true policies, worried about potential liability issues. But during the coronavirus pandemic, we have seen that adjustments in usually unchanging sectors can be made successfully, without disastrous consequences.

Moving forward, for people who struggle with mobility issues, in-clinic visits should not be a requirement for medical services that don’t mandate a diagnosis by a doctor. Employers should offer full-time or partial work-from-home options for employees whose physical presence in the office isn’t critical, and asking for such accommodations should not be held against an employee while they are applying for a position at a company. As a society, we should question our collective assumption that it’s easy for everyone to leave their home on a daily basis.

Right now, many of us are praying for a return to “normal.” Eventually, the pandemic will end, but people living with special needs will always be an important part of our society. We must take from this pandemic the lesson that we are fully capable of implementing creative solutions to accommodate people living with disabilities. It’s crucial that we retain flexible solutions for differently-abled people, whether it be expanded telehealth services, work from home options, or more at-home grocery delivery options, even after Israel returns to normal.

Rabbi Chaim Perkal is founder and director of Alei Siach, a Jerusalem-based nonprofit providing all-inclusive solutions for people with special needs and their families.