IDAP Interview Series: Interview XIV with Tomer Rosner

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Image of Tomer Rosner in a suit and smiling towards the camera.

Our next interview in this series features, Tomer Rosner, an Israeli civil servant. He developed an optic nerve condition at the age of 13 which eventually led to complete blindness. As a legal advisor to the Parliament of Israel, Tomer’s position is one of great importance and responsibility. He directly advises three parliamentary committees including the committee on internal affairs. His dedication to the cause and his position in the Israeli government has allowed him to make great contributions to the disability rights movement in Israel. He has played a fundamental role in the ratification of the Marrakesh Treaty by the Israeli Parliament and inclusion of the copyright exemption in their domestic law. An advocate by qualification, Tomer pursued a Master’s in Public Administration at the prestigious Harvard Kennedy School.

In this interview, among other things, he discusses his experience of studying in a mainstream school and the role that the State played in providing adequate support to him during his formative years. Even though Tomer continues to face some difficulties in his everyday work which stem from his disability, he is positive that change is coming- slowly but steadily.

This interview was conducted by Rahul Bajaj and Madhavi Singh. The interview has been edited for clarity by Anusha Reddy.

  1. Could you please describe the nature of disability?

I am completely blind. I was born full sighted. At the age of 13, my eyesight started to deteriorate due to an optic nerve problem. It deteriorated slowly and I lost my sight completely at the age of 40 which was about seven years ago.

  1. Did you study in a mainstream school while growing up?

Most of the time, yes. Till the age of 13 I was completely sighted so I had no problem. When my sight began deteriorating in a material way, I was transferred to a regular school with special features for about two years. There were about 20 or 30 children with visual disabilities spread out in regular classes. They have support for children and special hours after the regular curriculum.Thereafter, I moved to high school,which was a regular school near my home. Afterwards, I attended university, etc. which were all mainstream.

  1. To what extent did you benefit from studying in a mainstream school, which was targeted to provide support for your special needs as opposed to completely segregated?

I cannot do such a comparison because I was never in a special school. But from what I understand and know through my volunteer work with students, it can be said that a mainstream education is definitely much more suitable and preferable for many people with disabilities at large and people with sight disabilities in particular. It benefits both sides and is much better than segregated schools. Regular children are exposed to children with disabilities on one hand and children with disabilities are mainstreamed, so they can regularly participate in school life.  However, I think that mainstreaming is not necessarily suitable for everyone, and in some cases special schooling may be a better way of getting most out of a person. The important thing is to let the child and the child’s parents to make the best choice for the child.

  1. Do you agree that mainstream schools are better than segregated schools provided that mainstream schools have appropriate support systems to accommodate the special needs of children with disabilities? Are all mainstream schools in Israel mandated by law to have these kinds of support systems, or is it just the well-resourced ones that have these systems in place?

Yes. The model that is now implemented in Israel is that only people with multiple disabilities are segregated. Children with sight disabilities are all taught in mainstream schools with special support for the special needs and special teachers who are present at the school for as many hours as the students need.

The Ministry of Education in Israel has special committees which examine the needs of a child with a disability. They examine your needs and then identify your needs. You go to a school near your home – the school you are entitled to study at. The Ministry through the municipality and the school, provides you with the support that you need. Therefore, it is not just the affluent schools, which have such systems – all children get support by the State.  Nevertheless, as I said earlier, I am not completely sure that mainstreaming is always the best method of schooling for everyone. I think it should be open to a child and the parents to choose the best schooling for the needs and wishes of the child, through a well-prepared informed decision-making process.

  1. This point about Israel implementing such a system is very interesting because in India recently there has been a lot of debate about this. The Indian SC recently observed in a case that they found it inconceivable that someone with a disability could study in a mainstream school and that the State should invest in more special schools. But you are saying that in your experience that need not necessarily be a requirement unless a person has multiple disabilities.

Yes, to the best of my knowledge segregation was done with 20 to 30 years ago. All special schools for single disabilities such as visual disabilities are now closed. Now we only have special schools for people with multiple disabilities.

  1. What kind of special support did you get at your school?

I can categorize the support that I got into 3 categories. First,it was technological support. I was given all the equipment that I needed to succeed in my studies such as CCTV and recording tools. Everything that I needed was supported by the Ministry of Education. They provided me the financial support needed to purchase such equipment. I was also trained to use this technology by special teachers.

The second category was for classes which were especially visual such as, mathematics or geography- classes for which the technology wasn’t sufficient- I got help in the form of special teachers who would describe such visuals (such as, maps and geometry) for me. Usually the special teachers verbally described the visuals and sometimes it was recorded before-hand.Generally it was oral description. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn Braille.

The third form of support was the most important. I was given social support. I was taught how to communicate with my environment, how to socialize, how to present my disability in a right way, how to communicate to my peers. For example, I was told that I had to convey my needs very accurately to the regular teachers for them to be able to help me. I would not know how to do that if I were not taught this at that time. So, I believe that this was the most important part of the support that I got.

  1. Given that you had complete vision till you were 13, did that help you with understanding the information which was being given to you? Because for someone who is blind since birth understanding visuals merely on the basis of oral information would be hard.

Yes, I think you’re right. People like me who had vision in the past have more capability to see in their mind things which are described for them. I can mentally imagine and construct these images. I had read some research that people who are born blind have difficulty in imagining a picture in its entirety even when provided tactile pictures such as the Mona Lisa. But for me, I can do it. I was myself researched upon by a prestigious institute in Israel and put through a trial. They put me in an MRI machine in which they scanned my brain. They described something for me and I was asked to envision it. They then saw on the machine that I used the optical part of the brain to envision what they described for me.

  1. You studied at the prestigious Harvard Kennedy School and in an interview with the Harvard Gazette you stated that the school provided you with a mobility orientor and a proctor. Could you describe in detail the facilities that were provided to you at Harvard Kennedy?

As you can imagine, it was dream support – I got everything. I just had to ask and they gave it to me(laughs). For the first week they gave me a mobility instructor. They taught me the way from my new house to the school and from the school to the grocery store. It was amazing. They gave me a special vehicle to go to school if it was a rainy day or if it was hard for me to go by foot. They gave me all the technology I needed. And they gave me a special reader for math and exams. They gave me an assistant. I have no words to describe how they reached so far – It was amazing and they gave me everything I needed.

  1. From a logistical standpoint for such a support system, was all of it decided in advance or did you communicate to them your needs as and when they arose and then they provided you with the requisite support?

It was both ways. There were things that I anticipated in advance, for example, the mobility trainer. I didn’t expect they would provide it but I asked for it nevertheless because there was nothing to lose. And they gave it to me. So, some of it was planned in advance and some of it was ongoing. For example, there was an Economics class which had a textbook that wasn’t accessible.I reached out to the Professor who wrote the book (he was also a professor at Harvard) and he gave me the pre-publication version.

10. A Masters in public administration requires one to understand complex graphs and statistics. What strategies did you adopt for studying subjects and topics that required you to grapple with visual content?

That is a very good question! First of all, most classes didn’t have graphs, maps, tables, etc. because they were theoretical. Some classes such as, economics and math did have them. For such classes I had two strategies. The first was that I tried to find as much accessible material as I could. Sometimes I was successful in finding accessible material which I could use with the help of screen reader and “Mathplayer” software. The second strategy involved a personal reader who would sit with me and explain everything such as, graphs. Unfortunately, I had not learnt Braille so I did not use tactile graphs.

11. You are a lawyer by training. Given that the study of law requires one to have access to large volumes of material, did you have access to such material? Did your college provide you with reading material in accessible format?

When I was studying law almost 35 years ago, I still had vision. My vision was not 20-20 and I was considered legally blind at that time but I had vision. So I could read a regular book with CC TV. That is how I managed at that time. The librarian helped me to locate books in the library but I could read them myself by using magnifying tools.

I have a longstanding connection with students who studied law in recent years so I know that the situation today is much better. Almost 100% of the modern material is accessible. The only problem we see today is that old material such as decisions of the English Court from the 19th century and other old material are not accessible. But because such material is used less and less these days, the problem is minor. The key decisions of the House of Lords or the Supreme Court of the USA are all accessible. In rare cases, you find a need for special recording or readers. Everything today is on computers or in Braille. I think today the problem of accessibility for studying law is less acute than say, 20 years ago.

12. As someone with a visual disability who studied in both US and Israel, could you describe to us the pertinent differences you noticed in their education systems.

I can’t do the comparison because my own situation was changing. When I came to US, I had already lost my sight whereas when I was studying in Israel, about 25 years ago, I still had some sight. So, my own situation was very different. Moreover, I don’t know whether Harvard could represent the US system – It is a very rich institute. It gave me everything I needed and more. I presume that Harvard is not representative of the US system. In Israel the system is quite supportive. The “Aleh” association that I have the honor to serve on its board have developed a special model in the universities that we are very proud of which helps blind students in all areas. . We now have our first blind student in medical school in her fourth year of medical school. And I don’t know how she does it (laughs). But we give her all the support we can.

13. Is the nature of work you currently do linked to your legal training?

Yes, I am currently serving as a legal advisor to the Israeli Parliament. I give legal advice to three parliamentary Standing committees – the reforms committee, internal affairs and Environmental Protection committee and the State Control Committee. I manage a team that gives advice to all these committees.It is a very prestigious and high position in the Parliament. We take a substantial part in the drafting and shaping of the State legislation.

14. What challenges does your disability pose in your everyday work and how do you deal with those challenges?

I think the challenges are obvious that I have very large materials to grasp and I have to cite laws in the committee. I have to draft laws. For all this, I use only a screen reader. There are cases: letters that I get are not available in accessible format. People send us their opinions about the laws and bills which are not accessible. I have to use OCR to make them accessible. Even then, there are cases when I have to use personal readers. Sometimes, my intern has to read letters for me. There are challenges but I think that in our times if you know how to use technology and your brain, you can manage.

15. Since the nature of your job is slightly different from the conventional role of a lawyer, do you think lawyers who go to Court face similar problems? Or do they face some different problems?

Probably yes, conventional lawyers who work in Courts have completely different problems. When they appear in court, they have to examine evidence, cross examine witnesses and make oral arguments. So their problems are totally different. Their challenges are bigger because when I give my argument in a committee meeting, there is always someone by my side- a helper, if I forget something, he/she can remind me. In Court, I assume you cannot do such a thing. So lawyers in Court have a much harder challenge.

16. You played a central role in the Marrakesh Treaty being approved by the Israeli Parliament. You had an important role to play in the Copyright exception being adopted by the Parliament. Could you share some insights on legislative reform in the realm of disability law in Israel?

The Parliament had to ratify the Marrakesh treaty in order to implement it. Much like in India, a treaty doesn’t become a law until there is a domestic law. In this case, we had a very successful effort to convince the government to implement the treaty and not to impose barriers to making copyrighted material accessible.The Treaty allow copyright owners to demand compensation if the law allows it. In Israel, it is not allowed. There is free license to make accessible the material. We succeeded in its implementation. We are advancing is for accessibility of the internet, mobile applications and everything. We have new regulations that came into force in October 2017. They require all public sites to be accessible. ‘Public’ means not only public entities but all sites that are open to the public. Even if you are a supermarket or a retail store that offers online shopping or a school that offers online learning, you must make it accessible. It is a very advanced regulation. On the other hand, we have very poor physical accessibility in terms of wheelchair accessibility, etc. We have a very big problem in that respect.

17. Even though web-developers and people who design technological products are willing to make ICT accessible, they just don’t know how to do so or they are just not informed about the need for ICT to be made accessible. It is not that people aren’t well-intentioned but there is just a fundamental lack of awareness that results in barriers being imposed. Based on your experience in the government and as a disability advocate, how do you think that gap can be bridged?

It is not a simple answer. Many people do not really make things accessible unless they are forced to do so, unfortunately. We have in Israel very harsh sanctions if people don’t ensure accessibility. People are very afraid of class action suits.In our country it is possible to file a class action suit if a website is not accessible. It is a very strong tool. And people are very afraid of it.

On the other hand, I make a distinction between old and new things. For new things, because we have potential sanctions, people are starting to become aware of the need to make things accessible. For new things, most of the problem is about awareness and guidance. They don’t know what to do. There are no clear guidelines. If you ask me, “what is an accessible website?” We cannot say exactly. It is very difficult to say what an ‘accessible site’ is. So there is both lack of awareness and lack of guidance. But this is just for new things. Usually the financial cost for making anything new such as a new building or a new website accessible is negligible. The financial problem usually arises in the old materials such as, the old buildings which you have to modify for accessibility- that could be a very large financial burden. It could turn out to be an undue burden for small businesses such as, small shops. But for the new markets, if the things are made accessible at the planning board itself then things become much easier.

I am a firm believer in slow but steady progress. We have a lot of work to do to make things accessible and to educate people (even the disabled). To educate them about their right to accessibility and the need to demand it. All this would not happen in one day but would take a lot of time.

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The IDIA Disability Access Programme (IDAP) has launched a first of its kind initiative of interviewing disabled lawyers in all spheres of the legal profession (teaching, advocacy, litigation, corporate, etc.). The IDAP interview series aims to solicit actionable insights from lawyers with disabilities on the strategies adopted by them to excel in their field. The series also seeks to educate and increase awareness within the legal fraternity, with the ultimate aim of fostering meaningful dialogue on reasonable accommodation for persons with disabilities. If you have any comments/feedback on our series or if you would like us to interview a lawyer, please reach out to us at [email protected] or at [email protected].

You can read our other interviews here.

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