WIN EXCLUSIVE: ‘Fight for survival’ – disabled Israelis talk new state budget, bureaucratic challenges

“The government forces our lives into [a fight for] survival, and that becomes the primary focus and not dealing with the disability,” said a disabled mother of three.

By Lauren Marcus, World Israel News

The swearing-in of deaf MK Shirley Pinto to the Knesset was widely viewed as a symbolic victory for Israeli citizens living with disabilities.

But Tiferet Peterseil is less than enthused about Pinto’s chances of bringing about real change.

A single mother of three daughters, she became physically disabled in midlife after a car accident. She told World Israel News that Israel’s bureaucracy and meager monthly stipends for the disabled had caused her to lose hope about potential reforms to the disability system.

“I’m just really scared to have expectations,” she said. “At this point, it’s a farce. They make promises to settle everyone down, but even if they do fulfill those promises, it’s just a drop in the bucket.”

Peterseil cited the fact that the monthly allowance for disabled Israelis stands at 3,321 shekels (roughly $1,000), which is less than the monthly minimum wage of 5,300 shekels ($1,640), as evidence of a broken system.

Disabled Israelis like Peterseil who hire carers are required to pay them minimum wage.

But considering other mandated requirements for employers of at-home caregivers, including food allowances, private medical insurance, overtime and holiday pay, and vacation days, she told WIN that it’s impossible to pay less than 7,000 shekels a month.

With the need to pay so much out of pocket, a carer is out of reach for thousands of disabled Israelis, many of whom are barely able to make ends meet with their disability stipend.

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A struggle for survival

The story of Itzik Saidian, an IDF veteran suffering from PTSD who self-immolated in front of a government office after a years-long saga to obtain rights as a disabled person, hit close to home for Israelis living with disabilities.

Peterseil said that many in the disabled community could relate to Saidian’s despair.

“I can’t tell you how many of us think of doing those things, and how many of us anchor ourselves to something to not do something so extreme,” she said.

“The government forces our lives into [a fight for] survival, and that becomes the primary focus and not dealing with the disability.

“You can come to terms with disability. To come to terms with ‘you don’t matter or count in society’ is something else entirely.”

Peterseil said that the government must start “thinking in a practical way” about how to help disabled Israelis obtain the support they need.

The government should provide a subsidy for carers or allow them to be paid less than minimum wage. If that’s not an option, she said, then disability allowances must be increased so that Israelis can afford it.

By keeping disabled Israelis locked in poverty without the help that they need, Peterseil said, the government is “condemning me and my family to the outskirts of society and [the reality of] living hand-to-mouth.”

A widespread issue

Hanan Tal, CEO of the NGO Disabled, Not Half a Person, told World Israel News that Peterseil’s story isn’t uncommon. Israelis often face serious obstacles when they request in-home care, he said.

“There are single mothers, living with disabilities, who aren’t able to get someone to help them at home. That’s something that we are trying to fix, within the law,” he said.

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He added that combat veterans with PTSD are not entitled to an at-home carer, even if they need one, because the state does not recognize mental illness in the same way that it does physical disability.

And even when disabled Israelis are issued a special visa that allows them to recruit a foreign carer, the cost of help is often prohibitive.

“Foreign workers are getting minimum wage, and their Israeli employers are getting [a state allowance] below the poverty line,” said Tal.

He said that financial pressures place an undue burden on families that are left to fend for themselves when government bureaucracy proves too challenging.

The stresses of managing disability “don’t just affect the people with disabilities themselves,” Tal said. “They affect the families…we’re seeing 90% divorce rates in families with disabled kids.”

Broken promises

The 2018 disability allowances law, which raised the monthly stipend for disabled Israelis by some 500 shekels a month, was a major step in the right direction.

But due to political gridlock beginning in 2019 and the lack of a state budget for two years, the payments were only partially paid out.

And as the new government prepares to pass the first state budget in three years, advocates of the 2018 law discovered that the government does not intend to distribute the rest of the funds as originally promised.

“We’re now finding out that the treasury is trying to deduct 500 million shekels from the [disability allowances budget], with excuses that the population has grown, all kinds of excuses to show why they don’t have the money to pay,” Tal said.

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Although the 2018 law explicitly stipulated that the payments must come from the general state budget, Tal said the Finance Ministry proposed that the payments be made “at the expense of other disabled people.”

The Ministry is suggesting slashing income tax relief for disabled Israelis, including those wounded during their IDF service and in terror attacks, as a way to pay out the additional allowances, Tal said.

In other words, the funding for the increased disability allowances would come from ending tax discounts for other disabled Israelis.

An uphill battle

Tal said that at the peak of the Second Intifada in 2003, the Israeli government froze disability payments in order to ease the economic crisis caused by frequent terror attacks.

Although the payments were restored as the Intifada died down, the value of the allowances eroded over the years.

“In 2003, [disabled Israelis] had greater purchasing power [from their allowances.] The actual, real world value of the allowances has shrunk,” he said.

Tal said that the government has consistently dragged its feet when it comes to delivering on promises for disabled Israelis.

“People with disabilities are not on the priority list for MKs and other decision makers,” he said.

But despite facing an uphill battle, Tal said that his organization was confident they could force the law to be implemented and the extra payments to be distributed, even if it means taking their case to the Supreme Court.

“We won’t give up on even one shekel,” he said.