Special in Uniform

The IDF hosts delegations from abroad to show how it integrates young people with special needs.

Tiran Attia, Director of Special in Uniform, and Jeff Farber, CEO of the Koret Foundation, with soldiers serving in Special in Uniform (photo credit: YOSSI KAHANA)
Tiran Attia, Director of Special in Uniform, and Jeff Farber, CEO of the Koret Foundation, with soldiers serving in Special in Uniform
(photo credit: YOSSI KAHANA)

The IDF has recently been inundated by various visitors and delegations, as VIP representatives of countries around the globe flock to Israel to learn about its successful methods for integrating members of the special needs population into the army. The IDF is one of the strongest armies in the world, with more than 200,000 soldiers on active duty and 500,000 reservists, and the only army in the world to incorporate young people with special needs.
Since 2014, over 650 young people have served through an IDF program called Special in Uniform on 35 different bases. The program was established by Lend A Hand to A Special Child in cooperation with JNF-USA. The young people contribute a great deal to the army in a range of different jobs and are supported by the program’s professional support staff throughout their service.
The program was founded to give everyone a right to fulfill their potential and be accepted into society, regardless of any disability. Special in Uniform also goes beyond the walls of IDF bases, helping its graduates adapt to the workforce and Israeli society in meaningful ways.
Unlike many other countries in the world, Israel has a mandatory draft so that the army is an integral part of life for its citizens. This fact has made Israeli citizens with special needs eager to join the army for years; however, the IDF was unequipped to deal with them.
“On the one hand, we let them enlist,” Lt.-Col. (res.) Tiran Attia, project manager of Special in Uniform, says in a conversation about the complicated nature of the integration project that he runs. “On the other hand, we need to give them tasks that they can perform so that they don’t just sit on a chair and say ‘we’ve enlisted.’”
To this end, the Special in Uniform committee vets its candidates, evaluating the types of tasks that they are capable of performing. The Special in Uniform committee only gives members duties that are suited to their capabilities.
Since the inception of the Special in Uniform program, the IDF has opened its army bases to the special needs population. Hundreds of young men and women with disabilities have successfully joined the army, making Israel the spearhead of military integration.
“It’s not only about treating members of the special needs community as equal and deserving citizens,” says Yossi Kahana, the director of JNF-USA’s Task Force on Disabilities, explaining that there are actually certain tasks that people with disabilities can perform better than regular soldiers. “The army has discovered, for example, that autistic people can sit in front of a computer for hours, identifying objects and points of enemy penetration at lightning speed. Regular soldiers have a hard time sitting in the same spot for so long and decoding those objects, but autistic people do it easily.”
According to Kahana, the army has realized that it isn’t merely doing these citizens a favor by integrating them into the system. “They can offer a substantial contribution toward the safety of Israel,” he says.
Word of Israel’s successful integration methods have spread so that countries around the globe have expressed an interest in viewing the phenomenon. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), whose goal is to facilitate US assistance to Israel, sent a group of American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF) representatives to Israel recently in order to learn more about the system.
Jeff Farber, chief executive officer of the Koret Foundation in San Francisco and one of the delegation members, was suitably impressed upon seeing the way that Special in Uniform operates. “I think what Special in Uniform is doing is critical not only for people with disabilities.” Farber says. “It’s building an inclusive society.”
AIPAC not only facilitates US assistance to Israel; it worries about strategic collaboration between the two countries allowing for the exchange of security and technological information between them. AIPAC sent AIEF members to Israel in order to have them examine the ins and outs of the program so that it could be implemented in the US.
Kristine Reeves, State Representative of the Washington State House of Representatives from Federal Way, also joined the delegation. “The work of this program is revolutionary in terms of how we integrate young people with special needs into the army,” Reeves says. “But more than that, the program provides them with job opportunities and by doing that they become part of society.”
Will the program be implemented in the US? John Gioia, County Supervisor, of the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors of El Cerrito, California and another AIEF member to visit Israel, believes that it should be. “This program… is not only focused on serving in the army but on much more than that,” Gioia said. “It’s about being part of society and we can learn from it and bring it back to the US.”
Members of AIPAC are not the only ones to have visited Israel to observe the groundbreaking program. Award-winning American Jewish actress Marlee Matlin visited Israel last year to receive a prize from the Ruderman Family Foundation on behalf of her work aimed at integrating people with disabilities into Hollywood. Matlin is a deaf actress who won both an Oscar and a Golden Globe award, and she has a special interest in the special needs population. Before visiting Israel, she scheduled a visit to an army base so that she could observe how the IDF integrates special needs citizens. Her visit left her so amazed that she promised to bring the project to the attention of notable figures in the US so that a similar program could be implemented there.
Tiran Attia has taken all responses, positive and negative, to his program in his stride. “Israel is a country noted for its outstanding performance in a broad range of subjects,” he says. “But when it comes to integration there aren’t many countries in the world, which have integrated the special needs population into their army as equal members of society, people capable of performing the tasks that were specifically assessed and determined to be suited for their needs. It is this fact that is bringing these delegations from all over the world. People want to learn more about the phenomenon in order to figure out how it is done.”
In December 2018, President Reuven Rivlin welcomed a delegation from Special in Uniform to the presidential residence.
“The IDF is the people’s army. We have a diverse population, and the IDF must be diverse and include difference within it. I congratulate the IDF, which has proved it is able to enlist everyone who can contribute. It is a privilege, as well as an obligation, to do everything we can to share the burden in every sphere of life, including in the IDF,” Rivlin said.
Then, turning to the Special in Need soldiers, he said, “When you joined the IDF, not only you benefited. Your commanders benefited. The IDF benefited. The whole of    Israeli society benefited. Special in Uniform shows us that we can overcome limitations, but that we need a hand to do so. I want to thank your families, in particular – parents and other family members – and the commanders who support and appreciate you.”
When Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard H. Bernstein was elected last year, he became the first visually-impaired judge to fill that position. Bernstein, an advocate for people with disabilities who visited Israel with Friendship Circle USA, sums up Israel’s approach toward people with special needs beautifully.
“When I travel, the place that I am the most comfortable [visiting] is Israel. If you’re by yourself and people see that you’re struggling, it’s unbelievable what happens,” Bernstein says. “People come from everywhere to help you. [Israel] is the one place that I can go and be totally independent.”