“When you get to know someone personally, you look at the individual and not at his or her disability,” Maj.-Gen. (res) Ami Ayalon, the chairman of Akim – The National Association for the Habilitation of the Intellectually Disabled, said at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on Wednesday at the launch of the Israel Index of People with Intellectual Disabilities.

“Meetings with people who are different enable us to treat them as equals and to recognize not only their humanity, but our own,” said Ayalon addressing a representative body of Israel’s social mosaic, whose very presence proved that no sector or strata of society is immune to members with special needs.

Citing a survey among 605 people that included respondents from both the Jewish and Arab sectors and was conducted by the B.I. and Lucille Cohen Institute at Tel Aviv University, Akim CEO Sigal Peretz Yahalomi revealed that 67 percent of those questioned said that they did not know how to talk to a person with intellectual disabilities.

Fifty-two percent said that they would not want to meet anyone with disabilities and special needs.

Over half of the respondents said that they believe that people with intellectual disabilities have no right to bring children into the world, 37% would deny them voting rights, and in all responses, there was far greater bias against people with intellectual disabilities than those with physical disabilities.

Akim works to change attitudes by annually measuring the levels of inclusion to see to what extent Israeli society has progressed in its acceptance of intellectually disabled children in regular schools, intellectually disabled adults in the workplace and intellectually disabled people of all ages in the leisure activities of clubs and institutions.

The best place for such integration to begin was in the school room, said Ayalon, noting that when children grow up with each other, disabilities don’t get in the way.

People with intellectual disabilities should be allowed to decide for themselves where to study, where to live, where to work and where to spend their leisure time, said the Akim chairman, in response to some of the findings that indicated the reluctance of most people to work in the same room as someone who is intellectually disabled or to live close to someone who is intellectually disabled.

Yoss Weisbrot, 29, who is one of 34,500 intellectually disabled people in Israel, said that he was an actor who performs with a group that goes around the country creating greater understanding and acceptance of people like him.

For the past four years, he has also been working at the Beilinson Hospital branch of the Aroma coffee shops. Weisbrot said that he was happy to have a job, in that it allowed him to contribute to the economy and to work in a place where he is treated just like everyone else.

“I feel like I’m part of the general community,” he said, proving the truth behind Ayalon’s contention that it is important to look at the person and not the disability.

Approximately 25% of respondents to the survey said that they would not want to be served in a restaurant by a person with disabilities.

Yet for all the negative findings in the survey, Akim maintains an optimistic outlook.

A group of the organization’s musicians and singers provided the entertainment for the event and the first song they performed was “B’hol adam malah” (“There’s an angel in every person”).

Akim operates in 77 cities and towns throughout Israel, and Peretz Yahalomi singled out the Ashdod, Ra’anana and Dimona municipalities for the exemplary services they provide for the intellectually disabled, and for their openness toward integrating the intellectually disabled into the mainstream community.

Ilana Nuriel, who chairs the Friends of Akim group, was happy to report that over the last year, many more companies have provided employment for people under the Akim umbrella, and were contributing to their selfesteem by treating them like any other worker.

President Shimon Peres acknowledged that although Akim is in need of additional financial resources, it is giving the adults and children in its care something far more valuable than money: dignity and respect.

He was also happy with the semantic change in the organization’s mission statement, in that the intellectually challenged are no longer referred to as retarded or handicapped.

Peres, whose abiding interest in scientific research is currently focused on the brain and how it works, was confident that within the next decade, researchers would find what it is in the brain that causes or prevents different functions, and would eventually be able to provide treatment for what nature has neglected.

Through its own education system, its hostels, its clubs and its summer camps, Akim encourages people to realize the best in themselves and to see the cup as half full rather than half empty. As a result of this encouragement, increasing numbers of young people in the organization have proudly joined the IDF.

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