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More than half of the population is unwilling to allow mentally retarded people to live in their immediate vicinity, according to a study published Friday by the Welfare and Social Services Ministry's Department of Care for the Mentally Retarded.
Released to coincide with the department's annual conference examining the place of the mentally retarded in society, which takes place Monday and Tuesday in Tel Aviv, the survey also found that more than 50 percent of the public is not interested in initiating contact between their own children and children with mental disabilities in school or kindergarten. A third said they would not try to save a child born with brain damage because raising them would be too difficult.
In addition, noted the study, most people said they believed mental retardation was a genetic disability and not, as is generally the case, the result of complications in pregnancy and birth.
"Despite the fact there has been a definite improvement in public attitudes towards those with mental retardation, we are still under immense pressure to shatter old misconceptions and better integrate this population into society," commented Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog in a statement.
"Until now, the mentally retarded have been confined to their own social groups but those who've had contact with this population know how much is possible with them. We have to continue in this direction and allow them to live as full a life as possible."
The ministry's study, which surveyed 750 Israelis over 18, measured a wide range of public attitudes towards the mentally retarded, including general awareness of the issue, treatment, support services, and interaction.
While more than two-thirds of the population said they had come into contact with a person suffering from some form of mental retardation, 50% said they would not agree to mentally retarded people living in or near their buildings.
However, a majority of respondents (79%) said they would have no problem with a hostel or group home opening in their town or city; 72% said they would support such a solution in their general neighborhood and 66% would even agree to one opening on their street. That figure decreased, however, the closer such an institution became to the individual's home.
Regarding rights and life-cycle decisions, the majority of the Israeli public said it did not believe a mentally retarded person should be allowed to make decisions about their own lives, such as choosing study options, work, marriage and bearing children.
A small percentage, (10-12%) viewed the mentally retarded as dangerous or violent, although that figure is significantly lower than it was in last year's study, where 33% felt the same.
A little less than half (40%) said that a child born with mental disorders should be placed in care outside of the family home.
Mental retardation is a generalized disorder, characterized by sub-average cognitive functioning and deficits in two or more adaptive behaviors, usually arriving before the age of 18. Roughly 3% of children worldwide are born with mental retardation, and Israel's average is similar, except in the haredi and Arab sectors, where it can reach 4.5%. Currently, more than 25,000 people living in Israel suffer from different levels of mental retardation and receive care from the Welfare and Social Services Ministry.
This week's conference will bring together thousands of social workers, health care professionals, psychologists, psychiatrists and more to discuss the issues facing those with mental retardation under the central question of "Whose Life is it Anyway?"