New tour packages open Israel to disabled travelers

The physically challenged can now enjoy virtually unlimited access to Israel.

An agency appropriately named "AccessAbility Travel" has recently inaugurated a tour program designed for the blind, wheelchair users, the hearing-impaired, and travelers with other disabilities.

AccessAbility's founder is I. Jay Levitts, a Vietnam veteran who is currently on the board of trustees of The Genesis Fund, an organization dedicated to raising public awareness of children born with birth defects and genetic disorders. The agency's director, Judith Perry, is the mother of a daughter who was born with cerebral palsy and died at age 20.

Representing AccessAbility in Israel is the Jerusalem-based Amir Agency, which for the past 15 years has specialized in tours for people with visual, hearing and mobility impairments. Each Amir-escorted group tour is specifically tailored for the individuals comprising the group.

The day before a given tour gets under way, an Amir representative will go over the route in person to ensure there are no obstacles or potholes that might impede wheelchair movement and to make certain that the facilities on the itinerary are equipped to accommodate the tour group.

If it is a mobility-impaired group, the tour's destinations and its pace are selected to meet the traveler's requirements: The company's lift-equipped motor coach allows up to six wheelchair users to travel in relative comfort.

For deaf participants, an American Sign Language interpreter accompanies the tour.

AccessAbility/Amir programs for the blind emphasize the tactile and the aural, with descriptive text available in Braille. Destinations include the rough stone surface of the Western Wall, the smooth marble surfaces of statuary, textile exhibits at the Israel Museum, the bark of a tree planted in a Jewish National Fund forest, the salty taste of the Dead Sea, the fragrance of an orange grove, the smell of coffee brewing on Jerusalem's Ben Yehuda Street, the rustle of leaves and the sounds and smells of an open-air market.

Perry points out that although some 50 million Americans are disabled, very few travel-related businesses focus on this segment of the population. AccessAbility tours are geared for disabled individuals who can get around on their own as well as those who need to bring along companions or attendants.

Until now, Perry says, most agencies have habitually turned away disabled travelers because the agents did not know enough about the quality of disabled-access facilities outside the United States. The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), passed in 1990, has proven invaluable for disabled persons wishing to travel within the United States.

But there is a great disparity in access standards abroad.

Israel has no disability law comparable to the ADA. Nonetheless, the Jewish state is more sensitive to disabled-access issues than almost any other country in the world. Israel responds to these issues, Perry says, out of the Jewish tzedakah (charity) tradition and also because Israelis have suffered so many casualties in the wars and terrorist attacks of the past 50 years.

Israel's access facilities and concern for the disabled are "unsurpassed," Perry says.

AccessAbility packages vary in size from 12 to 25 travelers, who usually include both disabled participants and their companions or attendants. The tours run either eight or 15 days and can be scheduled at any time of year to suit the wishes of the group.

A typical package is the eight-day Classical Israel tour for deaf and hard-of-hearing travelers. Destinations include Jerusalem, the Dead Sea/Masada region, Tiberias and the Upper Galilee, "do-it-yourself" bread-baking and olive oil-pressing at a Lower Galilee kibbutz, Caesarea, the wineries at Zichron Yaakov and the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv.

The price includes seven nights at a first-class/superior hotel, all meals, an air-conditioned bus, a licensed tour guide, an ASL interpreter, detailed written materials, entry fees, a cruise on the Sea of Galilee, an audio-visual show at David's Citadel, a nightclub performance, a tree-planting in the Judean Hills, pilgrim certificates and other amenities.

Airfare is not included in any of the tour prices, which are "competitive with those for any conventional tour of Israel," Perry says.

Further details are available from AccessAbility, 186 Alewife Pkwy., Suite 310, Cambridge, MA 02138; (617) 661-3354; fax (617) 661-3354.