‘S’ is for ‘Sumsum’ – and for social inclusion

A partnership between Ra’anana’s Beit Issie Shapiro and a hit children’s TV show is helping to spread the message of tolerance and inclusion among Israeli preschoolers.

Rehov Sumsum 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rehov Sumsum 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 Sivan.
Significantly, Sivan has special needs and uses a brightly colored wheelchair to get around. She has been specially created by Rehov Sumsum to help promote tolerance and acceptance of disability among children.
Sivan and her friends also appear on new signs at Haverim Park, Israel’s first disability-friendly public playground, promoting messages of friendship and inclusion.
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, Sha’ara Simsim.
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 hit.
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 across Israel.
“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 kindergartens.
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 kindergartens.
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 explains.
As a result, people misunderstand and even fear people with special needs.
By introducing a disabled character, Rehov Sumsum is helping Beit Issie address this issue by normalizing issues of disability, adds Cohen.
“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 workshops.
“It’s important because this way regular kids can see and meet kids with disabilities and play together,” Cohen emphasizes.
Ra’anana 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 physical impairment.
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 before.”
Rehov Sumsum’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 special needs.”
Shuki is adamant that people in the wider community, not just kindergartners, should be educated about disability issues.
“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 disabilities.
“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 disabilities.
Filmed in Haverim Park with Muppet characters alongside real children, Hop! will screen the movie to preschool kids around Israel.
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 peers.
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.
Ronen Cohen 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.”