More than one-third of the population believes that mentally retarded individuals are a danger to society, according to a study published Sunday by the Welfare and Social Service Ministry's department for the mentally retarded.
While 74 percent of the 750 people questioned said mentally retarded people should have the option to live in community-based hostels, only 51% agreed to such a residence being located in or near their own home.
The research was conducted ahead of the department's fifth annual conference on the subject, being held this week in Haifa.
"This study proves that we have to take all necessary action to raise awareness among the population about mental retardation to reduce misconceptions and fears about the community," Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog said. "We need to focus on integration within society and the job market, as well as increasing awareness of these people's rights."
Approximately 30,000 Israelis are mildly to severely mentally retarded, according to Akim, the association for the rehabilitation of the mentally handicapped.
Some 2,000 people with mild to medium mental disabilities live in apartments, hostels and group homes within the community, according to figures on the Welfare Ministry's Web site, and another 6,400 people live in 58 larger institutions.
Three percent of children worldwide are born with severe mental and physical disabilities, a ministry spokesman said. Not including the haredi and Arab communities, where 4 to 4.5% of children were born with such disabilities, the spokesman said, the figures in Israel were comparable to elsewhere.
The great majority of those questioned for the survey said pregnant women should take all pre-natal tests necessary to detect and prevent children suffering from mental retardation to be born. Eighty percent said such tests should be provided for free or heavily subsidized by the government.
Most of the respondents could not identify the causes of mental and physical disabilities, with the rest - 25 to 30% - pointing to genetics.
Fifty-three percent of those questioned said they believed most of the disabled were cared for and treated by family members at home.
Within the Jewish community, most people do prefer to care for mentally retarded family members at home, while in the Arab sector, most said they looked for treatment elsewhere, primarily due to social stigma.
Herzog plans to urge attendees at this week's conference - scheduled for Monday and Tuesday in Haifa's Congress Center - to work toward more inclusion of people with mental disabilities in mainstream society.
More than a thousand professionals working with the mentally retarded community are expected to attend, including social workers, doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, nurses and physiotherapists.