More than 200 sheikhs, imams and priests - all leaders from Israel's Arabic speaking community - gathered in Nazareth on Wednesday to take up the challenge of disabled rights and brainstorm ways to improve conditions for some 170,000 people with physical and mental disabilities in their community. "There are many challenges facing people with disabilities living in the Arab-Israeli community," Avital Sandler-Loeff, Director of Masira, a three-year-old project of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) aimed at improving the lives and status of Arabic-speaking adults (21-65) with disabilities in Israel, told The Jerusalem Post. Sandler-Loeff, who is also Area Head of Independent Living for the Unit for Disabilities and Rehabilitation for JDC-Israel, said that Masira had already provided training and tools to some 240 clergymen and religious leaders to understand the challenges faced by those with disabilities. The goal of Wednesday's conference, she said, was to reach even more of the Arab-Israeli community leaders, most of whom are in a position to change general attitudes and educate others about the problems of being disabled. "All participants willingly cooperated because they see it as an opportunity to create social change," said Sandler-Loeff. "For them it is a platform to use their influential position as social agents for change in their society." According to figures collected by Masira, the rate of people with disabilities in the Arab sector is far higher than among Jews in Israel, with some 26 percent of the population suffering from some type of physical or mental impairment, compared to 17% in the Jewish sector. In addition, while 49% of Israeli Jews with disabilities are successful at finding employment, only 21% of Arabs with disabilities are working. More than 19% of Arabs with disabilities do not even complete elementary school, compared to 5% in the Jewish sector. "People with disabilities [in the Arab community] have incredibly low self-esteem and there are many social and physical barriers for them," stated Sandler-Loeff. "While many families take care of relatives with disabilities, at the same time they are sometimes ashamed of them and hide them away at home." She pointed out that for Arabs with disabilities, access to information was also a serious problem. "When Arabs with disabilities go to the National Insurance Institution or to other social services for assistance, they have a real problem understanding what they need to do because much of what is available is written in Hebrew," said Sandler Loef, stressing that the situation for women, and those living in the periphery, especially the Negev, was much harsher. As well as funding from the JDC-Israel, Wednesday's event was also sponsored by the Interior Ministry's Department for Religious Communities and the Massar Institute for Research, Planning and Educational Consulting.