The drive to make Israel a more tolerant and inclusive place for people with
disabilities has recruited a new crack team of social activists – the Muppets.
In a new partnership between the Ra’anana-based nonprofit Beit Issie Shapiro,
the Sesame Workshop and the Hop! TV channel, the popular puppet characters from
the hit kids’ show Rehov Sumsum (Sesame Street) have been recruited to help
preschoolers learn about disability.
Launched last month at Ra’anana’s
Haverim Park at an event attended by Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac
Herzog and Mayor Nahum Hofree, the creative new project involves special
workshops designed to engage kindergarteners by featuring the friendly
characters from Rehov Sumsum.
The project extends to the new season of
the muchloved TV show where, starring alongside veteran Muppets Moishe Oofnik,
Abigail and Mahboub, is a brand-new character, a young Muppet girl named
Significantly, Sivan has special needs and uses a brightly colored
wheelchair to get around. She has been specially created by Rehov Sumsum
promote tolerance and acceptance of disability among children.
her friends also appear on new signs at Haverim Park, Israel’s first
disability-friendly public playground, promoting messages of friendship and
The US children’s TV series Sesame Street, which premiered in
1969, was originally intended as an experiment by the nonprofit Sesame Workshop
to see how quality preschool education on television could make a difference in
the lives of children, especially those from low socioeconomic backgrounds. The
show now has several international spinoffs including a Palestinian version,
Israel’s Rehov Sumsum
was first broadcast in 1982. With a
diverse cast of human and Muppet Israeli characters, including Russian
immigrants, Arab Israelis and Sabras, the show was an instant
According to Ronen Cohen, Beit Issie Shapiro’s community program
manager, the partnership with Rehov Sumsum
is part of the charity’s long-running
educational initiative to promote integration of people with special needs
“SESAME STREET broadcasts in many different versions all
over the world, but all its programs promote the acceptance of different kinds
of people,” says Cohen.
“Here in Israel, the new series of Rehov Sumsum
will introduce a disabled character for the first time. The idea of Sivan is
that she is a regular member of the gang, and she teaches her friends about
disability and her special needs.”
As part of the program, a special
educational kit featuring Sivan and friends will be distributed among Israeli
Teachers will be encouraged to teach children as young as
three about disability issues.
The project will be introduced in
Ra’anana, where for the past four years Beit Issie has run similar
child-friendly disability education workshops in local
Beit Issie uses the workshops to reach out to the
preschoolers’ parents, who also find disability a challenging issue, adds Cohen.
“Like kids, adults don’t often get to meet people with disabilities,” he
As a result, people misunderstand and even fear people with
By introducing a disabled character, Rehov Sumsum
helping Beit Issie address this issue by normalizing issues of disability, adds
“Children will see these same issues being talked about in a
mainstream show, not just in the formal setting of special activities,” he
explains. “It will make it easier for us to talk to them about disability
because they will have a frame of reference for it.”
Children all over
Israel watch Rehov Sumsum
, so these messages of social inclusion will have a
much wider reach.
Another important part of Beit Issie’s initiative is to
bring regular children into contact with their disabled peers, including via
meetings in Haverim Park, and by bringing children with disabilities to speak at
“It’s important because this way regular kids can see and meet
kids with disabilities and play together,” Cohen emphasizes.
residents Simi and Shuki Ben-Haim know from personal experience how vital it is
for children with disabilities to be included in mainstream society. Their
daughter, Clil Or, was born with cerebral palsy, a motor condition causing
Now aged 11, Clil Or cannot walk and uses a
wheelchair to get around.
“Integration of people with special needs is
hugely important,” says Simi, Clil Or’s mother. “Although Clil Or is in a
wheelchair, we want her to participate in mainstream education in a regular
school. So it’s essential to teach kids how to be in the same class with someone
who is a bit different.”
Her husband, Shuki, agrees. “It’s important to
begin teaching people about disability at a young age, so they understand about
it,” he adds. “I’ve met adults who have never even seen a kid in a wheelchair
’s newest character is a great way to teach children
about these issues, say the Ben-Haims.
“Sivan is one of the gang, one of
the kids. It’s presented in a very natural way,” explains Simi. “Kids learn that
some people are disabled, that people are all different, and some of us have
Shuki is adamant that people in the wider community, not
just kindergartners, should be educated about disability
“Acceptance of difference does not begin and end at
kindergarten,” he emphasizes. “Disability lasts a lifetime, and its effects are
felt beyond just the parents or immediate family.
“For example, what
happens when the parents of a disabled child work and ask the grandparents to
take care of the child after school? How do they cope?” This sort of problem is
just the tip of the iceberg, the Ben-Haims say. Many places, from shops to
theaters to places of work, are inaccessible to Israelis with
“If someone doesn’t know about disability, they don’t
understand or think about the details like whether someone like Clil Or can
access a place,” says Simi.
Driven by the need to change the way Israelis
relate to people with special needs, Clil Or herself has decided to take action.
The determined 11-year-old has become a spokesperson for disability issues,
attending Beit Issie’s workshops to explain to preschoolers and their parents
how to integrate people with special needs.
Clil Or also starred in a
special educational movie funded and made by Hop! about children with
Filmed in Haverim Park with Muppet characters alongside
real children, Hop! will screen the movie to preschool kids around
RA’ANANA CAN be proud of the leadership role it is playing in
promoting social inclusion for disabled people.
Together with the Ted
Arison Foundation, the Ra’anana municipality is supporting Beit Issie’s
workshops in local kindergartens.
In 2005, Ra’anana gave its disabled
residents the chance to enjoy the city’s public park by opening Haverim Park,
the first disability-friendly park in Israel.
A cooperative venture
between Beit Issie, the Ra’anana municipality, JNF-UK and KKL, Haverim Park
incorporates a playground accessible by children with disabilities and their
families, allowing them to play out of doors alongside their able-bodied
The park includes innovations like swings able to accommodate a
wheelchair, which, as well as letting disabled kids have fun, break the vicious
circle of social inclusion that disabled people suffer. Since people with
disabilities often cannot use public facilities, they are mostly invisible to
mainstream society and so cannot make their voices heard.
says that Beit Issie has worked hard to encourage other cities to follow
Ra’anana’s lead and establish similar parks around the country. So far, just two
more have opened, in Beersheba and Kfar Saba.
But the charity says there
are plans to develop disability friendly parks in various different locations
around the country.
“We want there to be a Haverim Park in every
neighborhood in Israel. We would like to see these parks used for workshops,
festivals and outreach programs to continue to integrate people with special
needs into our society,” says Cohen.
Supporting Beit Issie in this scheme
are the National Insurance Institute, the Shalem fund, the Ted Arison Fund and
the National Lottery.
Despite the great strides made by organizations
like Beit Issie in promoting social inclusion for Israelis with special needs,
there is clearly a long and difficult road ahead. Many places remain
inaccessible, and unemployment is a huge issue for adults with severe physical
and mental disabilities. But Cohen is optimistic that through initiatives like
this one with Rehov Sumsum
, Beit Issie and its partners can succeed in changing
attitudes towards disability.
“Getting kids and their parents face to
face with disabled people and having disabled people represented in mainstream
shows makes these issues personal and real,” Cohen concludes. “It’s the best way
there is to change society.”