Having a disability and still excelling

Inclusiveness of people with special needs has become the benchmark of a decent society.

Kutztown University Rohrbach Library (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Kutztown University Rohrbach Library
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
When life deals you a lemon, make lemonade, runs an old adage that could be the motto for ILAN, the organization that helps children and adults with physical disabilities to reach their potential and realize their dreams.
ILAN has been doing this for decades, but more so in today’s social era in which the inclusiveness of people with special needs has become the benchmark of a decent society.
It has long been a tradition for ILAN to announce its goals at a ceremony at the President’s Residence. This year was no exception. On Tuesday, ILAN’s executive director, Boaz Herman, announced that physical disabilities should not be an obstacle to high achievement, and therefore the emphasis on this year’s goal will be on excellence in people with disabilities.
Indeed, there were several children and adults present who were living proof that this is possible.
There is one snag – which is in ILAN’s official Hebrew and English titles. ILAN is a Hebrew acronym for Igud Israeli Le’yeladim Nifgaim), which has been inexactly translated as the “Israel Foundation for Handicapped Children.”
Words such as “handicapped” and “crippled” are pejorative, and are no longer used in relation to people with disabilities.
Before society began acknowledging the many things that people with disabilities can accomplish, such people were unemployable. Their income was derived from sitting or standing in the street with cap in hand to receive the coins that passersby were willing to give them. Hence the word “handicapped.”
Since this is no longer applicable, leaving the word handicapped in the title of the organization is derogatory and negates its aims.
ILAN, which linked up with an organization caring for children born with cerebral palsy, was founded by a group of doctors during the polio epidemic that hit Israel in the early 1950s. One of the youngsters struck by polio was a Tel Aviv-born four-year-old boy named Itzhak Perlman. The world-acclaimed violinist who can barely walk is hardly unique among those who have also learned to overcome their difficulties, and have to some extent been spurred by them.
Among them are adolescents Noam Katav and Maya Peri, who were both born with cerebral palsy. Each joined ILAN at a very early age, and began swimming around the age of four. Each is now a national junior champion. The very personable Katav has won 13 gold medals, three silver and one bronze. On land, each has difficulty walking. In the water, they are like fish.
ILAN places great emphasis on swimming. Herman said research indicates that people who put a lot of energy into sport can also do well at their studies.
Here, he singled out Ola Melamed, 31, who was born in the USSR with cerebral palsy and came to Israel with her parents when she was two. She was with ILAN from the time she was three until she was 18, and like Maya and Noam, did a lot of swimming, a factor that helped her get into the IDF despite her physical condition, and also helped her to pass the bar exam. Today she works for a prestigious law firm.
“Without sport, I would never be what I am today,” she said. “By achieving in one field, I proved to myself that I could also do it in another.”
Guy Gerstein 36, was born in Israel. When he was three, his family moved to Argentina where he was diagnosed with a degenerative muscular disease. A decade later his family returned to Israel. By the time Gerstein was 16, he was no longer able to get around without a wheelchair.
Always interested in academic studies, Gerstein picked up a string of degrees in various subjects, most recently a doctorate in economics, which he received for his thesis on consumer habits. Unlike most people whose disability is diagnosed when they are still infants, Gerstein did not join ILAN until he was 19, and only because his mother kept urging him. He is very glad that he did, because he made friends who helped him to develop and gain the self-confidence to continue his studies.
“In academia, I’m an equal,” he said. Now, in addition to his work and his studies, he helps children with special needs. He always liked to be involved and to help others he said.
The self-confidence he gained enabled him to travel across Europe in a caravan. What keeps him going are curiosity, optimism and love of life.
President Reuven Rivlin stressed the importance of doing away with preconceived notions about people with disabilities and instead suggested that society look at the whole picture.
Many people with disabilities excel in sport, music and academia, he said. He saw no reason why today’s child with disabilities could not be tomorrow’s president.
This possibility was enforced by ILAN chairman, former MK Ehud Rassabi, who listed several great achievers, who, disabilities notwithstanding, reached great professional heights. Among those he mentioned were Perlman and US president Franklin D. Roosevelt, who contracted polio when he was 39. Despite being paralyzed from the waist down, FDR became US commander-in-chief.