“In the blink of an eye, you become totally dependent on the charity of others.”

יום הבינלאומי לאנשים עם מוגבלויות International Day of People with Disabilities

Bat El Katorza became ill with cancer and found herself completely void of independence. In honor of International Persons with Disabilities Day, Bat El expressed her innermost feelings in a personal and poignant article.

Four years ago, my mother developed cancer. As a result, I underwent genetic testing and discovered that I carried the BRCA gene. One year later, an MRI exam found three lumps. I continued testing, but the result was inevitable – I had cancer. With all the implications the word implies.

I had a full mastectomy and reconstruction, egg retrieval and embryo freezing. Exactly two years ago, on November 23, 2020, I completed my final chemotherapy treatment.  I went back to work a year ago last May, following 11 months of rehabilitation and therapy. I required a wheelchair throughout the entire period of hospitalization. I could not walk and could not use my hands for even the simplest of movements. My husband bathed me for almost a month and a half. All of a sudden, I discovered that every small movement I was used to doing could not be performed independently. Chemotherapy treatments trigger very difficult side effects, and even today, two years later, I still have repercussions from the chemo. Life changes. In the blink of an eye, you become totally dependent on the charity of others.

I went back to work and in the first school I went to our program coordinator took one look at me and was shocked. The last time I saw him, I had long hair. Now, I showed up with a crewcut.

I spoke in front of 300 students, recalling the words of Doron Almog (founder and chair of ADI Negev-Nahalat Eran), “Nothing lasts forever,” and told them that now, for the first time in my life, that is how I felt. They asked me questions such as, “What is it like to get around in a wheelchair?” or “How did people in the street react to your bald head?” I shared with them the words of the OR nurse, the one who encouraged me not to be embarrassed, adding that though now everything looks grey, the colors will return. The disease will be part of me for the next few years, but I will come away stronger.

I always related to the philosophy of ADI, even before my cancer, but now, it suddenly become personally relevant to my life. The independence that was instantly snatched from me, the ability to shower by myself and not be dependent on others. What people with disabilities undergo daily – I felt for six months, enough time to understand what it means to live with a disability and to be grateful day in and day out for physical and mental health.

For me, International Day for Persons with Disabilities is not one day of the year. It is every day of the year. A person with a disability does not live his disability once a year, they live it their entire life. In a way, the fact that special attention is given to people with disabilities on a specific day or specific month demeans the challenges facing a person with a disability throughout the year. For a person with mental illness, the difficulty may be even more profound because their disability is not always apparent, and people do not understand why they may need assistance.

Is enough being done? Everything depends on education. Change cannot be affected by just talking about it. We must create awareness, teach about disability, expose students to people with disabilities and offer joint activities. We have to make the topic accessible and establish joint community life.

I am presently in the ninth month of pregnancy, following fertility treatments and I am, of course, very excited. One could say that this is my own private miracle. My expected delivery date is the first night of Chanukkah.

As part of the “Tikkun Olam” program operated by ADI, students in the Israeli education system are exposed to seeing the other and the different as an inextricable component of the fabric of humanity. The program includes, among other things, lectures, special movies, experiential study days, integrative day trips around the country and community events designed to increase awareness and advance the rights of people who live with disabilities. ADI provides children and adults with various types of disabilities with the highest levels of medical and rehabilitative care. ADI centers operate under the auspices of the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Education and the Department for Care of People with Intellectual Developmental Disabilities in the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services.

There are over 1.5 million people with disabilities living in Israel, constituting approximately 1.7% of the overall population. Of them, about 270 thousand are children aged 17 and under. The most common disabilities are physical and intellectual. Close to half of the people with disabilities are of employable age (20-67). There is more than one kind of disability and, additionally, the number of people with disabilities rises proportionately to increase in age.

Bat El Katorza Cohen (34) has served as director of ADI’s “Tikkun Olam” program for the past seven years. Tikkun Olam is an educational program aimed at initiating change in the way young people view and relate to people who live with disabilities. The Tikkun Olam program is active in 230 schools throughout Israel, including special education schools. 

This article first appeared in “At” magazine in Hebrew, December 1, 2022

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