Israel lags some 15 years behind the US in its public attitudes, awareness and treatment of people with mental disabilities and intellectual challenges, according to Prof. Arie Rimmerman, a leading local expert from the University of Haifa's School of Social Work. Rimmerman was one of thousands of academics and professionals who gathered Monday in Tel Aviv at a Welfare and Social Services Ministry-sponsored conference examining the place of the mentally disabled in society. "If you don't know someone, it is easy to demonize them, and Israel still has thousands of people with intellectual disabilities living in closed institutions," Rimmerman, who is also a visiting professor at the Newhouse School of Public Communication, Syracuse University, told The Jerusalem Post. "It is a process of change that will take some time, but we are already seeing a change of attitudes in the next generation," he said. He cited Israel's move to more integrated community living for those with disabilities, and greater access to employment. A study released by the Welfare and Social Services Ministry over the weekend found that more than half of the population was not willing to allow those with such disabilities to live in their immediate vicinity, and 50 percent said they were not interested in initiating contact between their own children and children with mental disabilities in schools or kindergartens. It's all about interaction and contact, visiting US expert and researcher Dr. Joel M. Levy, co-CEO of the YAI/National Institute for People with Disabilities (YAI/NIPD), told the Post in an interview before taking the podium as the conference's guest speaker. "Many people have had little direct contact or only limited interaction with people with disabilities," observed Levy, who was recently awarded the Burton Blatt Institute Lifetime Achievement Award in the US for his more than four decades of working with the disabled. "Research shows that the more contact the public has with those with disabilities, the more accepting they become and go on to formulate much more positive attitudes," he said. At the conference, Levy spoke about "Implementing Principles of Self-Determination within a Disability Organization," focusing on concepts of self-determination and improved planning for people with mental disabilities. "For a person with disabilities, making their own decisions about their lives is the ultimate form of empowerment," he told the Post. "It energizes them and makes them more productive members of society." Levy continued, "It is my passion and commitment to create a better world for people with disabilities. I believe that no matter how disabled a person is, everyone has the potential to reach a higher stage of learning and productivity." While Levy said there had been great progress in the US over the past 40 years in allowing people with disabilities to leave insular institutions and join the community - via group hostels, joining the workforce and attending regular schools - he admitted that it had been a struggle. "These improvements do not happen just by talking about them," he said, highlighting his work in the US to retrain professional staff, educate parents and empower the disabled individual to become more self-sufficient. "There also needs to be more contact with the corporate world to enable people with disabilities to find their place in the workforce. This is where the government needs to step in, too." Levy is a regular visitor to Israel through his work with the Syracuse University-based Burton Blatt Institute, a research center on disability rights and progress, which opened a branch in Israel last year under the auspices of the Welfare and Social Services Ministry. According to figures released by the ministry, there are roughly 25,000 people living in Israel who suffer from different degrees of mental and intellectual challenges. The conference, which continues through Tuesday at Tel Aviv's David Intercontinental Hotel, brings together thousands of social workers, health care professionals, psychologists, psychiatrists and more to discuss the central question: "Whose Life is it Anyway?"