After high school I joined the army, finished the pilot’s course and became a fighter helicopter pilot. I served in Palmachim AFB. On March 16th, 1987, I went for a training exercise in the Golan Heights. We flew from Palmachim to the Dead Sea and from there made a turn North. A little before Beit Shean, the helicopter began shaking wildly and suddenly we crashed in the fields. We fell from 400 meters and it was a miracle I am alive. The head of the flight squadron died on the spot and I became paralyzed from the neck down. I needed to be in a wheelchair which is where I am at presently.
After the accident, I spent 1 year in rehab where I had to learn everything again. Everything. I was in a wheelchair and had to learn what this meant for me, I had to learn to eat, get dressed, to learn everything from zero. Towards the end of the rehab I was asked if I wanted to come back to the army and contribute. I learned coding and went in that direction and became a commander in the coding department for the air force. I held many positions, serving for another 31 years, and finished as a Lieutenant Colonel.
My dad was a wheelchair user. After my accident, I began to understand accessibility and I understood Israel had little accessibility for wheelchair users. No sidewalks or ramps, etc. Stairs instead of ramps to get into stores. No accessible beaches, or stadiums, or restaurants. Basically, zero accessibility. I felt I was under house arrest.
Later, I got married and started my family, raising children. I couldn’t do anything with my children because nothing was accessible and I began wondering . . . why has nothing been done about accessibility?
In 1999, Ezer Weitzman was the President and I wrote him a letter about accessibility in Israel chastising Israel for not doing anything about it. A day later I got a call back from the President’s Office. They said the President read the letter and wants to speak to me. We began speaking about my army service – he was also a pilot. He asked me about accessibility which he did not understand as there was really no word for it in Israel at the time.
After talking, he said, I put on you the responsibility of starting an organization that will make Israel accessible in every way possible. And he said that in another year and a half you will come to the President’s House and make it accessible. So I went back to the army, told my commanders about the conversation, and everyone said to me “as long as you do your military duty and finish your tasks, we allow you to create this organization”.
I got some friends together: one was a lawyer, a journalist, a marketer, a coder, and we made a business plan on how to make Israel accessible to everyone. We showed it to the President.
Our first project was making a website that showed accessible and non-accessible places in Israel. We did this because people with disabilities are often scared to go places because if it isn’t accessible it isn’t fun to go. And while this is cool, we wanted to make a bigger impact. 20% of people in Israel have a disability. So we made another business plan, one that was better and deeper. We decided to go down three paths: awareness, consulting to organizations, and legislation.
Access Israel’s Programs and Services
Our goal is to make Israel accessible to all people with disabilities in every aspect of life. So we help everyone: NGOs, private businesses, municipalities, etc. We also work with government offices to promote accessibility as a reality. For example, working with the Health Ministry to make a healthcare system that is accessible. Working with the transportation ministry to make accessible transportation.
I am very proud of our educational awareness training with schools, universities, the army, and educators so we change stigmas. The message is not just talking about it but to have them feel and experience it by seeing people with disabilities first hand.
The government does not fund our progams. 60-70% of our money comes from projects and ventures that push accessibility and we are paid for, that is: training, building accessible things, etc. The rest is from donations.
Vision for Access Israel’s next 100 years
Accessibility is developing. In the past, it was focused on physical and urban accessibility. Building parks, sidewalks, etc. that were not accessible and making them accessible. Basically, making things accessible, up to now, has been retroactive work. It’s very time and resource intensive. Now, we are at a time where we see things becoming digital and less physical. So we came up with a national project called “Making the Future Accessible Early”. The idea is if we make accessibility a priority now, then we do not have to do it retroactively (saving money and time) and we prevent social gaps from things not being accessible at the start. And of course, technology will be a major part of every facet of life.
As the Chairman of Access Israel, I like working hard for an organization that literally doesn’t stop working, ever. The victories with awareness and legislation are nice of course, but the best part is meeting someone in the streets who asks if I’m Yuval and when I say yes, then they tell me how much I have made their life better through Access Israel.
Many changes are still needed for people with disabilities – a lot still needs to change. But first, we need luck and money, since legislation and awareness are key for changes to be made. But ideally, with our plan for the future, we will make a situation where 18% of the population can live normal lives. Ideally though, we need to also teach people with disabilities how to use technology. Like, how does a blind person surf the web? There are ways to do so, but it requires using a special software. And it isn’t intuitive or accessible enough yet. So ideally, we can help make this a reality for people with disabilities.
It is important to have a more inclusive world so people understand and are aware of the lives people with disabilities lead so they can see these people living normal lives. We intend to also lessen societal gaps between disabled and non-disabled people.
Although I do not have a role model, I like Bill Gates’ approach to Malaria in Africa – the fact that he has tried to solve this pressing health issue, and try to fundamentally change the status quo in Africa in relation to the disease. I wish someone like this would understand accessibility and the need to fix it and make it better.
No one wants to be disabled, but it can happen to anyone at anytime. You can fall, get into an accident, and it especially happens as you get older. Anything you do now to help the situation with accessibility will make life better in the future.
We focus a lot on tourism through the organization, both on domestic and foreign tourism. We also focus on private vacations and organized tours. We want Israel to be a leader in accessible tourism. It’s the holy land and a beautiful country. And the question is, how do we make it accessible for tourists and tours? What we have done throughout the years, including legislation for hotels, public transportation, and attraction sites to be accessible, these are all making more places accessible. And of course the result is that there can be more revenue for the tourism sector. And we are working with the Tourism and Foreign Affairs Ministry to promote all of this. So, we are working with places to promote their accessibility and make it public so that when someone like Fred comes to Israel he has it easily available to him to understand how accessible a hotel/restaurant/attraction is.
We are also working with the top 100 attractions in Israel to make it 100% accessible, and with tour guides on how to make accessible trips.
Outside of work, I am a workaholic. I work around the clock for this organization. I like being with my family, my kids and grandkids. I love travelling and more and more there are hikes that are wheelchair accessible, which is nice. I love going to concerts, especially blues shows, and restaurants too.
People can read about us and our activities on www.aisrael.org and they can also donate.
Special thanks to Jordan Kastrinsky of JB Upscale for interviewing Yuval Wagner for this article.