Disability Studies Quarterly
Fall 2005, Volume 25, No. 4
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies

Israel's Equal Rights for Persons with Disabilities Law: Current Status and Future Directions

Arie Rimmerman, Ph.D./DSW, Richard Crossman Professor,
School of Social Work
Social Welfare and Health Studies
University of Haifa, Mount Carmel, Israel

Tal Araten-Bergman, MA, Doctoral Student, School of Social Work,
School of Social Work, Social Welfare and Health Studies
University of Haifa, Mount Carmel, Israel

Shirley Avrami, Ph.D.
Israeli Knesset Research and Information Center
Jerusalem, Israel

Faisal Azaiza, Ph.D.
School of Social Work, Social Welfare & Health Studies
University of Haifa
Mount Carmel, Israel


Since the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act in the United States (1990), many countries have passed similar disability laws, shifting the focus from a social welfare approach to a human rights approach. Similarly, in 1998 the Israeli Knesset passed the first three sections of the new Equal Rights for Persons with Disabilities Law (Employment, Public Accommodations and Commission for Equal Rights of Persons with disabilities), leaving seven additional sections for future legislation. However, a thorough examination of its implementation reveals that the law has been only partially implemented, and there is concern as to whether this legislation brings a significant change in employment and social opportunities for people with disabilities in Israeli society. The article reviews and discusses the matter and suggests possible future directions for disability rights legislation.

Until the 1960s, people with disabilities were perceived as incapable of coping with society at large. In most Western countries, including Israel, disability has been addressed as an aspect of social security and welfare legislation, health law, or guardianship (Bickenbach, 2001; Driedger, 1989; Florian & Dangor,1999; Fougeyrollas & Beauregard, 2001; Scotch 1984; Shapiro,1993). People with disabilities were viewed not as citizens with legal rights, but as objects of welfare, health, and charity programs (Braddock & Parish, 2001). Unfortunately, this social policy approach contributed indirectly to their segregation and exclusion from mainstream society into special schools, sheltered workshops, and housing (Drake, 1999). Calls for a human rights approach to disability law and social policy have been heard against a background of specific entitlements and other social policy provisions found primarily in the areas of health, rehabilitation, transportation, education and employment. Many of these provisions were originally political responses to the needs of disabled veterans (Liachowitz 1988; Stone 1984). As a result, disability programs and policies around the world have tended to be reactive and piecemeal responses to specific social conditions rather than fully coordinated and integrated into an overall social policy.

Since the 1960s, there has been growing recognition that the exclusion and segregation of people with disabilities does not logically follow from the fact of their impairment, but rather results from political choices based on false assumptions about disabled people in an able-bodied society. Thus, the focus has shifted from viewing disability as an individual problem (as projected from the medical model) to defining it as a failure of society to consider human differences (Johnstone, 2001). With this paradigm shift from the medical to the social and political model of disability, disability was reclassified as a human rights issue under international law (Bickenbach, 2001; Johnstone, 2001).

The 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the United States was a watershed event for disability rights on the international stage (Bickenbach, 2001). The ADA recognized that discrimination against people with disabilities in the form of purposeful unequal treatment and historical patterns of segregation and isolation was the major problem confronting people with disabilities, not their individual impairments. As such, the ADA bars discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, public services, public accommodations, and telecommunications (Bickenbach, 2001; Johnstone, 2001).

Since its enactment in the United States, many countries have passed similar disability laws, shifting the focus from a social welfare approach to a human rights approach. Similarly, in 1998 the Israeli Knesset passed the first three sections of the new Equal Rights for Persons with Disabilities Law (Transportation, Employment, and Disability Ombudsman), leaving seven additional sections for future legislation (Accessibility; Housing in the Community and Personal Assistance; Education; Culture, Leisure and Sport; Special Needs; The Court System; General).

Does the partial legislation reflect the status of disability rights in Israeli society? What is the future of the law and its implementation? This article will review previous Israeli disability laws, the new Equal Rights for Persons with Disabilities Law and its current status, and examine whether the enacted sections of the law improve the employment and social opportunities of people with disabilities. Finally, we will project the future direction of disability rights legislation.

Israel's Equal Rights for Persons with Disabilities Law (1998): A Review

Since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, there has been an intensive effort to develop a set of laws for people with disabilities. However, during the last 50 years, the Israeli Knesset (parliament) has failed to set an integrative and consistent disability policy. The major disability programs were enacted over a period of years and reflect the varying values and pool of resources available at the time. Thus, the programs differ in the ways in which they determine eligibility and reflect different principles (e.g. the need for social security, compensation and insurance). The three major pieces of legislation for people with disabilities are the Veterans with Disabilities Law of 1959, The Work-Related Disability Law of 1954 and the General Disabilities Law of 1975.

These laws reflect the social welfare ideology, providing cash and benefits on the basis of proven eligibility and focusing on the individual. For instance, the Veterans with Disabilities Law is based on the compensation principle. It was introduced very shortly after the establishment of the State of Israel and was prompted by the need to compensate those who had become disabled through military service. The law granted a basic cash benefit, calculated on the basis of medical impairment, and a civil service wage. This benefit was not linked to the individual's financial situation or to his or her ability to work (Gal , 2001).

The Work-Related Disability Law provides temporary and permanent cash benefits to those injured on the job or who have contracted a work-related disease. The benefits provided are calculated primarily (though not exclusively) by assessing the impact of the disabilities on the functional capacity of the victims and on their previous earnings. The program is based on a combination of insurance and compensation principles in the social welfare context (Gal, 2001).

Finally, The General Disability Law was adopted after most of the other disability programs were already in place. It seeks to provide a guaranteed minimum income to disabled individuals who are not covered by other programs. At the foundation of this program is the need principle. The cash benefits are intended to provide a minimal income to individuals with disabilities who are either unable to work at all or whose capacity to engage in substantial gainful employment has been significantly undermined because of his or her disability. Accordingly, need is identified through two different tests — the degree of medical disability and the impact of disability on the individual's earning capacity (Gal, 2001).

The first impact of disability rights in legislation is evident in the Special Education Law of 1988. This law emphasizes the integration and mainstreaming of children and adolescents with special needs. In 1992, special regulations were adopted requiring sign language translation and subtitles for all television broadcasts. This approach was expanded in 2000, when the Israeli Knesset enacted the Psychiatric Rehabilitation in the Community Law.

The legislation process of the Israel's Equal Rights for Persons with Disabilities Law (1998) was initiated by "Bizchut," the Israel Human Rights Center for People with Disabilities that drafted the proposed Equal Rights Law for People with Disabilities. The draft legislation was introduced to the Knesset, and passed its first reading in March 1996.  Following its introduction, the Minister of Justice and the Minister of Labor and Welfare formed the Katz Committee to evaluate the draft legislation (Report of the Public Committee to Check the Comprehensive Legislation: Rights of People with Disabilities, 1997).

The committee submitted a report stating that "only a comprehensive and detailed law can bring about a reduction in the existing gap between the reality that people with disabilities live with and the principles of equality and human dignity, which are the fundamental principles of Israeli society" (Report of the Public Committee to Check the Comprehensive Legislation: Rights of People with Disabilities, 1997). The Katz Committee's report served as the basis for the Knesset's legislation.  The four sections of the Equal Rights Law for People with Disabilities were approved in 1998, and became effective as of January 1999. The four main sections are:

Fundamental Principles:  This section expresses the right of a person with disabilities to equality, human dignity, and active participation in society in all walks of life.  Patronizing intrusions into personal autonomy should be replaced by the right of a person with disabilities to make decisions regarding his/her own life.  This section of the law also establishes the universal principle that a person with disabilities will be able to exercise his/her rights within the existing institutions of society, and not in segregated frameworks.

Employment: This section prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in applying for work, in work conditions and other issues related to career development, provided that the individual is qualified for the job.  An employer must modify the work place to meet the needs of an employee with disabilities or a candidate for employment with disabilities.  This section also establishes that in any business with more than 25 employees, there must be fair and proportional representation of people with disabilities.

Public Transportation: This section establishes the right of people with disabilities to accessible transportation services, modified to address their needs.  This includes intra-city buses, trains, airplanes, and ships.

An Equal Rights Commissioner for People with Disabilities:  This section establishes an Equal Rights Commission, an independent body financed by the government and charged with the mission of advancing the rights of people with disabilities and enforcing the Equal Rights Law.  The commission will include an ombudsman and an advisory committee made up primarily of people with various disabilities.

The Current Status of the Legislation and Difficulties in Implementation

Degener and Quinn (2002), who surveyed disability rights reform internationally, believed that there is consensus about the fundamental nature of the equality principle in domestic as well as in international law. The problems that arise come from the interpretation and implementation of this principle. The marginality of disability rights as a political issue is evident in its absence from the platform of seven Israeli parties. Even when present, it ranks very low in terms of political priorities. There is no doubt that the new legislation is a clear indication of the government's commitment toward disability rights (Rimmerman & Herr, 2004). However, the questions of whether the law is being implemented in a satisfactory manner and whether people with disabilities have made gains in their participation in the general society are less clear.

In terms of results, there is evidence that Israel has not implemented the law in a timely fashion. The Israeli State Comptroller criticized the government for falling behind in the implementation of The Equal Rights for Persons with Disabilities Law (Report # 52b): "Government did not allocate the resources needed to develop employment opportunities for people with disabilities and postponed the accessibility requirements imposed on public transportation companies."

It seems that there is a significant discrepancy between the stated law and its actual implementation. Just after the passage of the law, Shnit (1997) questioned whether the law was practical and could improve the participation of people with disabilities in general society. He claimed that "legislation that sounds good in theory but has no real impact on society is a well-known phenomenon, especially when dealing with legislation for a population that finds it difficult to stand up for its rights" (p.89). Today, six years after the passage of the law, it seems that it has not resulted in the substantial social participation and employment gains for individuals with disabilities that its proponents had predicted (Rimmerman & Herr 2004; Rimmerman & Katz, 2004; Sandler-Loeff, Strosberg, & Naon, 2003; The State Comptroller's Report 52b, 2002).

For example, among recipients of the general disability benefit from the Israeli National Insurance Institute (Israel's version of Social Security), ages 18 to 65, only 15% are in an employment framework, only 10% of them are employed in supported employment positions in the open market, and the rest are in sheltered employment. Experts estimate, however, that at least 40% of those in sheltered employment frameworks are capable of integrating into supported employment, which would give them the opportunity to work in the open market. This would enable them to perform a variety of tasks suited to their abilities, to maintain contact with people who are not disabled, and to earn higher salaries (Sandler-Loeff, Strosberg, & Naon, 2003)

Furthermore, The Equal Rights for People with Disabilities Law (1998) itself has been only partially implemented. The regulations mandating accessibility of public transport were signed in 2003, and the regulations on State participation in improving access in the workplace have yet to be signed (The State Comptroller's Report, 2002). Rimmerman and Katz (2004) did not identify any significant changes in employment or social participation rates of people with disabilities in Israeli society. In terms of formal and juridical equality, it seems that Israeli legislators do not see the passage of the proposed sections of the law as a priority.

Avrami and Rimmerman (2005) recently studied legislators' intentions to participate in the voting on the next sections of the law. The study was conducted among members of the 15th Knesset. The legislators' perception of their party's voting approach was the core variable associated with the intention to take part in the vote. The fact that voting intention was not guided by the legislators' own personal values or by previous contact with people with disabilities reflects the social distance between Israeli legislators and this target population. In addition, the Equal Opportunities Law for Persons with Disabilities unfortunately lacks moral and political support from the Israeli disability rights movement. Although the Israeli disability strike of 2000 that lasted 73 days received a great deal of media attention, it was not intended to redress past discrimination, promote civil rights, or change the attitudes of the public toward people with disabilities but to increase their disability benefits (Rimmerman & Herr, 2004).

An additional reason for the lack of interest on the part of legislators in human rights legislation is the status of disability policy in Israel. According to Drake (1999), the formulation of disability policy models range on a spectrum from the negative policy model to the social or rights-based policy model:

  • The negative policy model is found in countries that actively seek to deny the human and civil rights of disabled people.
  • The laissez-faire policy model occurs when the state plays a minimal part in the lives of disabled people, or indeed in the lives of any citizens, who are therefore left to fend for themselves.
  • The piecemeal approach to policy making describes a position in which the state makes some response to disability, but only in a reluctant and haphazard way. Such an approach may result when the government is spurred to action as a result of pressure and circumstances rather than out of any desire to construct and implement a cogent and carefully planned strategy.
  • The maximal policy model constitutes one such strategic approach. The state's purpose here is to identify and respond to the disadvantages suffered by disabled persons. Even in this model, the state still sees disability as stemming from individual impairments rather than the configuration of society itself. The focus remains on the need for changes in the physiology of disabled individuals, and the response involves the construction and maintenance of a web of services aimed at the palliation and amelioration of individuals' conditions. Even services aimed at integrating disabled people begin by identifying and labeling them, ipso facto segregating them (conceptually if not physically) from society at large.
  • The social or rights-based policy model is founded on principles entirely different from those of the individual basis highlighted so far. Here the state accepts that it has a responsibility to serve all its citizens and recognizes that disability is a product of a society and environment designed by non-disabled people for non-disabled people.

It seems that due to economic and political considerations, Israeli legislators treat disability legislation in terms of the piecemeal approach, offering only sporadic response to the needs of people with disabilities.

The Future Direction of Disability Rights Legislation

What is the future of Israel's Equal Rights for Persons with Disabilities Law? Will the law be fully implemented and improve the participation of people with disabilities in society? What can be learned from the ADA and other international disability rights legislation?

Unfortunately, it seems that Israeli legislators are not personally or politically motivated to pass the future sections of the law (Avrami & Rimmerman, 2005). The implementation to date has been slow and incomplete, as the Israeli government did not allocate enough resources as planned (The State Comptroller's Report 52b ,2002). Without significant change in legislators' attitudes toward the integration of disabled people into Israeli society, there is very little hope that we will witness a change in the place that people with disabilities will have in Israeli society.

Making matters worse is a lack of leadership for the disabled population committed to shifting the focus from additional benefits to setting a new agenda focused on the human rights of disabled people. The impression is that most of the leadership of the 2000 disability strike were co-opted by government agencies and were satisfied with incremental and insignificant changes. It is against this backdrop that the future of the seven remaining chapters of the Equal Rights for Persons with Disabilities Law must be considered.

Israel can learn a great deal from the recent interesting debate as to whether the ADA has changed the employment status and social participation rates of people with disabilities in the U.S. Recent national surveys and studies show that today, more than a decade after the passage of the ADA, disabled people lag somewhat behind people without disabilities. With regard to community participation, Americans with disabilities still face gaps in securing jobs, education, accessible public transportation and in many areas of daily life including recreation and social participation (Lee, 2003; National Organization on Disability, 2002). It seems the ADA has not resulted in the substantial employment gains for individuals with disabilities that its proponents had predicted. It also has not resulted in many legal victories for disabled individuals who have challenged alleged discriminatory actions.

Hadgins (2005) presents a critical view that the ADA is a classic example of well-intentioned legislation that was so poorly thought through that it is now, and likely in the future will be, a major source of lawsuits and unnecessary costs to the private and public sector. The ADA is, in effect, a national building code, justified in the name of civil rights. Very often the disabled reap few, if any, benefits from such costly efforts. If Congress is serious about relieving the citizens of the current regulatory burden, it must have the courage to re-examine the ADA.

However, Russell (2003) argues that the backlash against the ADA is a product of capitalist opposition. This opposition has not only stifled the many benefits that might have resulted from effective ADA enforcement, but it has also promoted negative attitudes toward the ADA among groups of workers who have become fearful that their own interests will be jeopardized by the act's employment provisions. Efforts to advance the civil rights of disabled people are further hampered by the absence of affirmative action programs for disabled people. The absence of affirmative action programs for disabled persons is particularly significant, given ADA plaintiffs' overall lack of success in the courts. In the first eight years after the ADA's passage, defendant employers prevailed in ADA employment cases over 90 percent of the time, at both the trial and appellate court levels.

Do Israeli legislators believe that affirmative action is the key to promoting disability rights? The Israeli experience is that any piece of legislation in this area will be law in name only and will not be widely accepted by employers and society at large. A clear indication that disability rights are not on the top of Israeli legislators' agenda is the recent decision to require that all public buildings in Israel be fully accessible to individuals with disabilities only within the next 13 years.

There is concern among Israeli social activists that the recent government economic policies of cutting social programs will slow down or even completely halt the enactment of the next sections of the Equal Rights for Persons with Disabilities Law because such affirmative action legislation will be perceived as blocking business and economic development.

There is no doubt that there is a need to finalize the legislation process and to enact the next seven sections. However, it is quite impossible to move forward without the critical input of the people with disabilities themselves. Drake (1999), who analyzed the impact of disabled people on policy-making in the U.K, concluded that the key to any positive change is through the process of campaigning, protesting, and demonstrating. It is therefore imperative that people with disabilities take part in the political process and engage in a dialogue with the non-disabled sector of society. Rimmerman (1998), who compared the rehabilitation systems in Israel and the U.S., suggested that the slow pace at which changes occur in the life of people with disabilities in Israel is attributable, at least partially, to the country's social and political structure.

In addition, there is a need for open dialogue among people with disabilities, legislators and the public at large. This is a golden opportunity for the Equal Rights Commissioner for People with Disabilities to play a crucial role in initiating and promoting the debate about the priorities and goals of change. The commissioner should initiate periodic surveys examining the inequalities between people with and without disabilities in employment and social and civil participation. Finally, social scientists have to study inequalities between people with and without disabilities longitudinally to shed light on the areas in need of greater civil and social participation.


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