Israel’s first deaf MK aims to be a full-time warrior for disability rights

Yamina lawmaker Shirly Pinto says she is devoting herself to ensuring that her hearing-impaired son will grow up in a different world than she did

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

Shirly Pinto, the first deaf Knesset member, is sworn in to the Knesset on June 16, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Shirly Pinto, the first deaf Knesset member, is sworn in to the Knesset on June 16, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Shirly Pinto made headlines when she was sworn into the Knesset last month using sign language. And she elicited a standing ovation and warm embrace from a sharply divided Knesset when she gave her maiden speech to the plenum as the first deaf lawmaker in Israeli history.

But while Pinto, 32, appreciates the support, she isn’t looking for sympathy or special treatment. She says she’s in the Knesset to fight for the rights of approximately 1.8 million Israelis with some form of disability — physical, mental, emotional, and intellectual disabilities, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder.

“From the moment I entered the Knesset, I brought in with me all the issues related to people with disabilities — something that didn’t exist until now,” Pinto told The Times of Israel. “All of the past governments, for the entire history of the state, marginalized people with disabilities, no matter how much they cried out and came to the Knesset for help.”

The Yamina MK said that in her own experience speaking with ministers and MKs before she was elected — when she would visit the Knesset as a disability rights activist — “they would all say, ‘yes, yes,’ and then they would disappear… it wasn’t an issue burning in them and it wasn’t part of them.”

Now, with her entry into the Knesset, Pinto said “people with disabilities know they have an address, someone who is working entirely for them 24/7. There are close to 2 million people with disabilities who didn’t have a voice in the Knesset, who didn’t have an address. And now there is without a doubt a change in the Knesset.”

The new Knesset member sat down recently with The Times of Israel in the lobby of a Jerusalem hotel, after the latest in a series of all-night parliamentary voting sessions. Pinto, who has been deaf since birth, communicates via sign language, and her words are translated into Hebrew through her longtime interpreter, Liat Petcho.

Both of Pinto’s parents are deaf and she realized from a young age how much she would have to fight for accessibility, awareness and understanding. Today, as the mother of 2-year-old Nevot, who is also deaf, and with a second child on the way, Pinto says she is dedicating herself to ensuring that her children do not endure the isolation, restrictions and uphill battles for acceptance that she faced.

“It’s one of the central reasons I ran for the Knesset,” she said. “To change the future for the next generation. It’s been more than 30 years since I was born, and things have stayed the same. How can that be? There’s no lack of ability, it’s not that it’s impossible. There’s a lack of will. It’s not a priority. And this is the kind of approach that needs to be eradicated from its core.”

Transparent masks and silent sirens

Despite the obstacles and challenges she’s faced her entire life, Pinto has refused to let anything hold her back. She volunteered for army service despite being exempt, and served with distinction in the Israeli Air Force. She went on to earn a law degree, and has worked for years as an activist and advocate for the rights of those with disabilities.

In 2014, Pinto wed Michael Kadosh, an American native who is also deaf from birth. The pair met as teens at a summer camp, and became fast friends.

Kadosh had made aliya as a child, Pinto explained, because his family in Los Angeles could not find a framework for him that was both culturally Jewish and accessible for deaf children. So when he was 6 years old, “they made the decision to take the whole family, leave the US and move to Israel.”

Shirly Pinto, her husband, Michael Kadosh, and their baby, Nevot, at the Knesset. (Courtesy)

Pinto entered politics in 2019, joining Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s New Right Party, which later became Yamina. Four elections later, she finally entered the Knesset through a law that allows ministers to resign their Knesset seats in order to make room for more party members in the parliament.

Pinto says the Knesset has worked with her to make the building and processes more accessible for the hearing impaired — installing a light in her office that flashes ahead of votes, since she cannot hear the bell, and moving her seat on the Knesset floor to the edge of the plenum, where she can best be positioned to always see Petcho, her sign language interpreter.

But as she’s settling in, Pinto has hit the ground running — and says she couldn’t be arriving at a more crucial time for people with disabilities.

Israelis with disabilities have been particularly hard hit by the COVID crisis that has ravaged the world over the past 18 months. “People with disabilities were the first to be laid off… and the last to be rehired, since the employment market is not so open to people with disabilities,” she said.

The MK says she helped reach an agreement with the Finance Ministry that sees the state subsidize 20 percent of the salary of employees with disabilities for the first 10 months of their employment. “It’s not the optimal solution I would want,” she admitted, “but as a first step, it’s a good incentive for employers.”

President Reuven Rivlin and his wife, Nechama, host a group of disability rights activists including Shirly Pinto (back row, between Reuven and Nechama) at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem in January 2018. (Haim Zach/GPO)

And one of the very first steps she took in the Knesset, said Pinto, was to achieve something she has been fighting for over the past 18 months: the approval of transparent facemasks in hospitals to aid the hearing impaired who rely on lip reading.

“It’s been an incredibly difficult year and a half, in particular as a deaf woman,” said Pinto. “Everywhere I went I couldn’t understand anything — how am I supposed to communicate with anyone?”

Pinto had been in touch with former health minister Yuli Edelstein on the issue, but did not make much progress. His replacement, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, approved the measure almost immediately, she said, and beginning on August 1, hospitals across Israel will be mandated to keep a stockpile of transparent masks on hand. Pinto hopes they will now become more common in other settings, in particular state-run institutions.

“I worked for a year and a half to have transparent masks approved — it’s so straightforward, it’s already approved by the FDA, I couldn’t understand what is so complicated,” Pinto said. “We had to suffer through a year and a half of hell — 750,000 deaf and hard of hearing people who couldn’t understand anything, anywhere… it cut us off from the entire rest of society. It was horrible.”

Shirly Pinto, the first deaf Knesset member, speaks during a plenum session in the Knesset on July 12, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Another unique challenge that Pinto is working to address is the danger posed by incoming rockets. While missiles do not discriminate, those who are deaf or hard of hearing cannot hear the warning siren alerting people to seek shelter, placing them in extra peril.

Pinto and her family live in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan, which was targeted by dozens of rockets from Gaza during the recent violence.

Pinto explained that there are two potential options for the deaf and hard of hearing to be alerted to incoming rockets — an app from the Home Front Command, or a beeper that vibrates.

But during the 11-day conflict with Hamas in Gaza in May, the app didn’t always work correctly, according to Pinto; at times the warning would come after a delay, or the app would fail to pinpoint where a person was located.

This put hearing-impaired individuals and their families at risk since they were not able to head for shelter, she said.

Pinto said the Home Front Command has been working to “greatly improve” the app, and in the case of a future conflict “will be much more prepared.”

Working together

As the youngest current member of the Knesset, Pinto says she sees a need to “bring a spirit of innovation and modernization” to the Knesset, with less bureaucracy, less regulation and more direct answers for citizens. For example, she said, “it hurts my heart” that every Knesset member receives stacks and stacks of papers of printouts of proposed legislation, instead of digital copies. “There are little things like that that can make a big difference.”

She has also shown herself keen to cooperate with other parties within the diverse ruling coalition to get things done, like working with Labor MK Efrat Rayten, a former actress and children’s TV presenter, to encourage and advance the production of television programming for deaf children. According to Pinto, there is virtually no TV programming accessible to deaf children, including her own toddler.

“He can’t take part, he doesn’t understand anything,” she said. “How can it be that a child is cut off from all Israeli culture? It’s unthinkable.”

It is just that spirit of cooperation among ideological foes that Pinto believes can unite the diverse coalition, as well as lawmakers from the government and the opposition.

“The union we’re seeing between the left and the right [in the coalition], working together for one common goal, is a wonderful thing,” said Pinto. “As a right-wing woman, this obviously wasn’t the government of my dreams, this isn’t the ideal situation — but amid two years of political chaos and this difficult situation, I think it was necessary.”

Shirly Pinto communicates with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during a swearing-in ceremony of new parliamentarians at the Knesset in Jerusalem on June 16, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Despite the often divergent views of the members of the government, and its failure to pass a contentious Palestinian family reunification law earlier this month, Pinto thinks the coalition will be able to stick together.

“I believe that it is actually very strong and united, and is doing everything to give stability to the country,” she said. “I’m seeing a lot of goodwill between all the parties — which is rare and hasn’t been seen for a long time in this country. The government is functioning, the ministers are working and not attacking each other.”

The cooperation between disparate parties including Yamina on the right, Meretz on the left and the Islamist Ra’am Party, said Pinto, “is what this country needs, is what its citizens desire, and is what is truly necessary for this time.”

From the moment she entered the Knesset last month, Pinto said, she has felt that both coalition and opposition lawmakers support her proposals and her efforts to bring change.

“There are differences of opinion about the government but when the joint goal is to work for people with disabilities, people put things aside and work together and it’s wonderful,” she said.

And she has been particularly touched by the outpouring of support from the public, and the many messages she received after being sworn in — including from the parents of deaf children.

“The week I was sworn in, I received a message from a mother who had just given birth to a deaf baby girl,” recalled Pinto. The mother was struggling with her daughter’s condition, but when she saw Pinto being sworn in to the Knesset, she gained perspective — and hope.

Those are the kinds of messages, said Pinto, that make the all-night Knesset sessions, the round-the-clock work and the often intense public pressure all worth it. She also understands that her history-making presence in the Knesset is almost as significant as her legislative work.

“I hope that my entry to the Knesset will bring meaningful change, and will lead to deaf people not having to struggle for every right,” she said. While some issues can be legislated, others can only change “with awareness and open-mindedness and understanding.”

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