Combating intolerance of people with special needs

Newsbite, a joint project of The Jerusalem Post and Alei Siach, is being launched.

January 8, 2015 21:50
Jerusalem's Old City

A Jewish woman and her child walk through Jerusalem's Old City. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

The Commission on Equal Rights for Individuals with Special Needs published a report this week indicating a high level of intolerance toward people with special needs. Forty percent of the public said they would feel uncomfortable having children with special needs in their children’s class or pre-school. Thirty percent of the respondents said they would prefer not to live in the same neighborhood as people with special needs.

Although such surveys are published every year in Israel with similar results, I cannot get used to these statistics. I refuse to get used to them.

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Every time I read this kind of survey, my heart sinks. I think about the hundreds of thousands of children and adults with special needs and the people in their immediate circles who are hurt by such attitudes, which stem only from ignorance.

It affects me personally and takes me back to the late 1980s when I was the young father of Yechezkel and Rivka. Yechezkel has a mental disability, while Rivka has autism.

We received a mission from God that we did not choose, and we struggle every day to lead a normative family life. But my family has admirably and courageously faced the challenge of raising these children.

One challenge that was particularly difficult for us to surmount was marginalization. People had trouble accepting us. In those days, ignorance was rampant, and a child with special needs was considered someone to avoid – an untouchable.

When we walked down the street together, people stared at us, or worse, they looked away and crossed to the other side. They treated us as if we had a contagious disease. When we arrived at the playground with our kids, the area emptied out. People advised us to hide our kids with special needs so as not to compromise their “normal” siblings’ chances of getting married. It was insulting and hurtful for everyone in our family, both nuclear and extended.

It took us a long time to realize that we were not alone. Along with other families who were dealing with a similar situation, we decided to change the complex reality forced on us. We established the Alei Siach organization and defined two important objectives: to provide care and support services for children and adults with special needs, as well as appropriate support for their families; and to initiate public relations and educational activities across the spectrum of Israeli society. We aim to raise awareness and sensitivity toward the special needs population, thereby building a bridge of tolerance, respect and inclusion.

The phrase alei siach means “talking about it.” It expresses our deep desire to break down the walls of unfamiliarity and raise awareness about the special needs population.

We believe that the public must become acquainted with people with disabilities – going to school with them, mingling with them in public areas, working with them and living alongside them as neighbors and individuals with equal rights. Only in this way will people with special needs experience less social isolation and discrimination.

An incident from those early days serves as an example of the process that Israeli society must undergo.

When Alei Siach first began, once a week the girls and counselors from our hostel in Jerusalem would go out to a popular coffee shop. The first week, the owner almost kicked them out, claiming that they were driving the other customers away.

The second week, he agreed to seat them at a table in the back.

Several months passed, and when they didn’t show up one week, the owner called and asked them to please come, because “they were an inseparable part of the atmosphere of the coffee shop.”

Lack of awareness leads to alienation and withdrawal. In contrast, interaction leads to understanding and positive experiences that dispel prejudicial attitudes. This is a natural human process, and it transforms people with special needs from strangers that make people uncomfortable into familiar human beings. Just like all of us.

As one who has had four decades of personal experience with this issue, I believe that Israeli society is moving in the right direction. The public discourse is beginning to change for the better, and the level of sensitivity is rising. Although the results of the survey paint a gloomy picture, as one who knows what’s going on in the street I sense that significant changes have been made since the 1980s. Today, awareness of the “other” is much greater, and the organizations that are working to integrate the population with special needs into the community are doing blessed work.

The Education Ministry has declared this as the year of “The other is me.” Recently the Knesset passed a law, initiated by Oren Hellman, requiring every company of 100+ employees to ensure that at least 3 percent of its personnel are people with special needs.

This is not a gesture of charity; it represents true integration with acceptance as the norm – an essential part of a properly functioning society.

The media’s attitude toward this issue is also beginning to change.

A clear example is this newspaper, which offers a platform for pushing for social change. This is possible with the help of sensitive, ethical people in key positions who understand the power of the written and broadcasted word. Thanks to them, those who are on the periphery of social awareness are able to reach the heart of the mainstream.

I am very pleased to have been given this opportunity to move up a step in our publicity activities and launch Newsbite, a joint project of The Jerusalem Post and Alei Siach.

Once a week, we will recount the activities of reporters with special needs, members of a playground news team. Our reporters all have some type of disability, but in light of who they are and their character, the disability will be relegated to the background.

We chose the medium of a comic strip because we have found that experiential learning through smiles and enjoyment is the most effective way to create empathy. I invite you to share the comic strip with your children and give them as much exposure as possible to this topic. I have learned that when children become acquainted with those who are different at a young age, their entire life experience is changed for the better, and our society is changed for the better as well.

The writer is founder and chairman of the Alei Siach organization.

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