Faisel Saeed and his wife, Arifa, recently returned from Israel, where they participated in the first ever Canada-Israel Inclusion Mission. Saeed is an IT security expert at BMO and is a wheelchair-user who serves on the board of March of Dimes Canada. The mission was a joint program of March of Dimes, the Reena Foundation and Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital. It brought 36 people to Israel, many with disabilities, to visit tourist sites and witness Israel’s innovations on behalf of the disabled.
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your disability?
I grew up in Pakistan and unfortunately, that is one of the few countries in the world where polio remains. I got polio when I was very young and grew up with that. I went to school there and after getting my master’s, I went to the United States and got my doctorate in artificial intelligence. I came to Canada about 20 years ago and I’ve been working for a large Canadian bank.
How have things changed in Canada over the years, in terms of accommodating people with your disability?
I have mobility challenges. I haven’t seen much material progress in terms of accommodations. There have been some new laws, like the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, but the implementation of those laws has been very slow. So challenges still remain in terms of accessibility. When I came to visit you here at The CJN, the building only had one wheelchair parking spot and there was somebody parked there, without a permit.
Tell me about your pre-trip impressions of Israel, when it comes to accommodating people with disabilities?
My impression was that they are far more ahead in terms of finding new, innovative ways of including people with disabilities into their society. That’s why I joined this mission, to visit some of those locations and see what we can learn, as Canadians, and see if there are things we can share with the Israelis.
What did you see while you were there that stands out for you?
I saw two very different extremes. On one side, there is a lot of eagerness, a desire to integrate and include people with disabilities into society. As part of the mission, I got to visit different institutions that are actively doing that, including the Israel Defence Forces.
But on the other side, in terms of people’s attitudes and responsiveness, I was a bit surprised.
For example, the people are much more aggressive on the street. They don’t look for seniors, they honk at carts and wheelchairs. When we were walking around as part of the mission, other group members would practically circle me and there were two occasions when I almost got hit by cars.
On the sidewalk?
On the sidewalk. They park on the sidewalks. All the infrastructure, like the poles and things like that, are erected right in the middle of the sidewalk, so there is no clearance. And curb cuts are almost non-existent in Israel.
Was it difficult to navigate around Israel as a disabled person – to go to restaurants, public buildings, take transportation, to do the things an average tourist would do?
For most places, it wasn’t very convenient. I needed somebody’s help. There would be steps, there would be barriers and I would need help to go over those. I was expecting there’d be ramps to go over those. Even in Toronto, some old restaurants have a temporary ramp they can pull out for people in wheelchairs. I did not see such provisions there.
Tell me about the people you were with. Not all of them were in wheelchairs. Did they share the frustrations you had?
There were two of us in wheelchairs. We had one gentleman with a visual impairment. He noted that the elevator music in our hotel was so loud, he could not hear any announcements or anything.
When he crosses the street in Toronto, there is that beeping sound to indicate that the signal is still on, so people with visual impairments can still cross the street. They haven’t built those types of provisions in Israel yet.
I understand that during your trip, you toured various institutions and companies that do research aimed at helping the disabled. How does Israel fare when it comes to generating innovations that help the disabled?
We went to two types of institutions. One is the more historic ones, like the kibbutz, and they have been working well in terms of integrating people with disabilities into an independent living arrangement. Within the kibbutz, disabled people were performing duties and being productive.
We also got to visit start-ups that are developing new technologies, to help people with disabilities.
One of the interesting places we visited was ReWalk. That is sort of a body suit you can put on. I met the gentleman who used to be in the IDF and got injured and, as a result of that, he was in a wheelchair for 25 years. With the help of ReWalk, he was able to walk and he walked a marathon.
Would that be something that would interest you, to try that out?
That would be great.
Did you try it while you were in Israel?
No. That’s something that has to be custom developed.
Is it available in Canada?
Are they planning to introduce it here?
They mentioned that they have FDA approval in the United States, but are still working on the Canadian side.
How do you think Canada and Israel compare when it comes to developing innovative technologies like that?
I think in terms of exploring new and innovative uses of technology, Israel is far ahead of us. They are exploring a lot of new ideas. We met with another start-up that is exploring how pointing devices, like a mouse, can be used for people with disabilities who don’t have strong hand controls. We met another company that is adding subtitles to music videos and TV programs, things like that. We met another company, Paratech, which customizes wheelchairs. It was inspired by the guy’s father, who was in a wheelchair and they customized it for him, so he could go up on top of a mountain. Now they are applying that to help other people achieve their dreams of going to places and doing things they hadn’t done because of their mobility challenges.
In terms of getting around as a tourist, how does Israel compare to other places you’ve visited?
Israel seems very similar in many ways to other places like Pakistan or Cuba, when it comes to people’s attitudes, accessibility and availability of the infrastructure.
Are there any areas where Canada can learn from Israel when it comes to accommodating the disabled?
Overall, there is a very strong push in Israeli society to include people with disabilities into everything. For example, we visited the IDF, where they have supply centres where people with disabilities are an active part of the force and they do very critical tasks that can help save lives.
We visited the Magen David Adom ambulance service. They provide services to the disabled with several forms of accessibility, through special apps and communication technologies, and they have employed people with disabilities in their call centre, as well as their logistics centre.
We went to Kishor, a winery. People with disabilities live there on the kibbutz and they help make wine.
Another interesting place we went to provides nature experiences for people with disabilities. They have a farm with accessible areas. People with disabilities can walk around and participate. I participated in extracting olive oil and making perfumes, making bread, things like that. We don’t have anything like that in Canada.
What could they learn from us in terms of accommodating people with disabilities?
Basic infrastructure stuff like I mentioned earlier, like not parking on the sidewalks, making things a little more accessible. In Canada, one area of technology we have lots of is accessibility buttons. Everywhere you go, you press the button and the door opens up. That almost doesn’t exist there. They can start using that and make things more accessible that way.
As a tourist, were your impressions of Israel?
I’m not going to talk too much about politics, but my general impression is that it is an area of conflict and that there’s always something going on there. We went there and we experienced that it’s a very peaceful environment where people of all different faiths are living together and working together.
We toured the different cities. We went to Tel Aviv, the Galilee, Nazareth, Jerusalem. Everywhere we saw Arab shops, people working, people coming across the border from the West Bank, working and going back.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity