The language of T.O.M: How one organization is working to help the disabled

With Tikkun Olam Makers, a worldwide network created in Israel by The Reut Group, people with disabilities work with experts to create affordable and unique solutions to meet their needs.

Gidi Grinstein, Founding President of The Reut Institute (photo credit: Courtesy)
Gidi Grinstein, Founding President of The Reut Institute
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Danielle Ongo-Levy doesn’t see things like others might. Her battle with glaucoma and resulted in damage to her optic nerves and vision loss, causing her to see objects as blurry and distorted.
“I have the eyes of a 90-year-old,” the young woman says without a hint of self-pity.
Despite this, she is a talented award-winning graphic designer whose work is young, vibrant, sharp and full of life. Ironically, then, in many ways, her view of the world and how she depicts it is more optimistic than most.
“I love Disney and I want to create images for kids that they’ll connect to.” To that end, she’s a volunteer in Tikkun Olam Maker’s Tel Aviv community where she uses her expertise as a visually impaired artist to create comic books for children who also have difficulty seeing.
“It’s a big honor to be part of a team that wants to think about making comic books accessible to the visually impaired. As a student, I’m thrilled to learn from experts and make a difference,” she says. “When I’m here, nobody feels like they’re different or an outsider – we are all individuals trying to help.”
A visit to that community, located in Impact Labs, a large innovation space in the basement of one of the city’s WeWorks, is a flurry of activity. In one corner, someone is drilling and in the process of creating a device that will change someone’s life. Across the room is a woman in a wheelchair, testing out a mechanism that will help her weigh herself in the comfort of her own home. People in IDF uniforms and even seeing eye dogs are there too – all with one purpose: To ensure people with disabilities are able to live and afford the life they want, not the one that society dictates they must settle for.
The volunteers meet for three hours once a week for three months with the goal of creating a specific prototype solution to address a specific need that doesn’t exist in the market. These meetings are done with the full participation of the person with the disability – or need-knower as they’re called in the TOM universe. Together with a team of engineers, designers and programmers the team brainstorms a solution that caters to that specific need.
And the Tel Aviv community is not alone. Tikkun Olam Makers works with 60 other communities around the world. From Chile to Azerbaijan to Singapore, developer sessions and make-a-thons inspired by the very Jewish notion of repairing the world to make it a better place for people with disabilities.
What makes this TOM formula special?
According to Gidi Grinstein, Founding President of The Reut Institute, which oversees TOM, a combination of critical elements are responsible for its dramatic growth since 2014. Its worldwide network of Jewish communities who are dedicated to Tikkun Olam, plus the creation of technology that is cost-effective and can be easily reproduced and TOM’s reliance on Israel as a hub of innovation to set the tone for their entire global Tikkun Olam model are reasons why the organization has grown dramatically. So successful is this model, that even communities with no significant Jewish community have bitten the TOM bug and hosted make-a-thons. As an example, TOM recently hosted events in Mexico City and Nashville and will soon hold events in Singapore and Baku, Azerbaijan.
Together with the Alliance for Global Good, The Reut Institute wanted to create a significant contribution to humanity in the twenty first century on behalf of Israel and the Jewish people.
“We realized this goal would require systematically focusing on innovation in design and technology to create and disseminate solutions for the many hundreds of people who are living at the bottom of the pyramid of our societies,” he explained.
Paralympic athlete Veronica Zvik (photo credit: COURTESY)Paralympic athlete Veronica Zvik (photo credit: COURTESY)
TOM’s light at the end of the rainbow, so to speak, is to dramatically impact the lives of 250 million people living with a disability.
Demonstrating the global effectiveness of TOM, its work is felt as far away as Melbourne, Australia.
“TOM: Melbourne is a force in Australia and a key player and disruptor in the disability/tech space,” says Ben Shemesh, TOM: Melbourne’s Manager of Innovation and Development.
With only a bare-bones, four-person team, TOM: Melbourne has hosted make-a-thons, developer groups and collaborated with major local universities.
Propped up by donors in the local Jewish community and organizations, they – like the other TOM communities – help a diverse array of individuals.
So who are these need-knowers? To really understand them, one must set aside every preconceived notion they have about people with disabilities. These need-knowers are courageous, strong and rather than hoping someone will come forward to advocate for them, they decided to take matters in their own hands and be part of the solution.
Take Veronica Zvik, for example. Her bright pink lipstick and dynamic smile underscores her equally cheery disposition. A former Krav Maga instructor for the IDF, she injured her leg during a training session. Rather than seeking immediate treatment, the injury exacerbated. Now, Zvik relies on crutches to get around. And although, doctors have warned her she may never walk again without assistance, Zvik is determined to prove them wrong.
In the meantime, she continues her active lifestyle. She has represented Israel in Paralympics Tennis and waterskis in her spare time. Her parents call her adrenaline inducing stunts crazy, but for Zvik, it is simply who she is.
“It feels like home being here,” she says while speaking on the sidelines of one of the TOM developer sessions in Tel Aviv. “Whether you have a scar or a disability, it’s difficult to have any sort of physical deficiency as a woman because you’re so easily judged by society. But, here, I know nobody is judging me. ”
She is also lifted up by the optimistic spirit at TOM that acts like “therapy sessions for the soul.”
“You’ll never once hear someone complain and say they’re hurting or suffering. That stays at home. When we’re here, we want to work,” she says.
And get to work she has. Her TOM team is working on foldable crutches for this professional athlete who is constantly on the go.
“I get consulted about everything, so I never feel like an outsider,” Zvik says of the TOM process. “I’m grateful for TOM for helping raise awareness for people like me who have wants and desires just like everybody else.”
For Robert Bell, who has decades of experience in start-ups, his TOM journey began courtesy of his daughter, Maya. Maya became involved with TOM as a volunteer for her national service and she encouraged Bell to volunteer himself.
“You don’t really see a formula like this in other organizations,” Bell observes. “Usually organizations pick people with certain experience for specific roles. But at TOM, you have an eclectic mix of people with a wide variety of backgrounds who each bring something unique to the table.”
“We hear a lot need-knowers initially say, well, ‘I gave up on my dream. My life is different now and I can no longer do the thing I used to love to do,’” he laments. “Bringing that hobby back into their life is life-changing.”
He is currently in the process of developing a prototype that will help blind people lift weights. What seems like a very simple task, is nearly impossible for someone who can’t see. In a life shrouded in darkness, it is incredibly frustrating to switch scales and put them in place. They often slip away, making it difficult to find them without assistance.
These two products are just a couple examples of the hundreds that will be on display as TOM rolls out its new revamped website in the next few weeks. The website will give TOM an official platform where they can bring these solutions to people around the world. TOM vows that each product will not only be affordable, but address a yet, unmet need for a person with disability that can help hundreds if not thousands of people around the world.
“We’re not talking a mass market here, rather many niche ones” Bell explained. “But if we help 100,000 people with the same need, then that’s worth the investment.”
As such, the products are usually put together by items one can buy in their neighborhood hardware stores and would come with specific assembly instructions that one can download on their smartphone free of charge.
In an email to volunteers and donors, TOM explains that the website will “serve as an interconnecting hub, as well as a marketplace between ‘neglected challenges’ and the resources to solve them.”
Veronica Zvik says she is lifted up by the optimistic spirit at TOM that acts like ‘therapy sessions for the soul’ (photo credit: COURTESY)Veronica Zvik says she is lifted up by the optimistic spirit at TOM that acts like ‘therapy sessions for the soul’ (photo credit: COURTESY)
In May, the organization is hosting Makers for Heroes. The event, which will take place in Tel Aviv, is a TOM make-a-thon on steroids; where developers and need-knowers will come together for three days to create solutions for wounded veterans from around the world.
The event, a partnership with Restart Global, a non-profit organization that helps IDF wounded soldiers move out of the injury cycle, and Challenge America, a US-based organization. From helping an IDF soldier wounded in the 2006 Second Lebanon War stand up straight to enabling a wounded US army vet feel the thrill of dancing again, Makers for Heroes works to give them the second chance at life they deserve.
The inspirational event was recently honored at the AIPAC Policy Conference, where Zarita Croney spoke about the influence of Makers for Heroes in a pre-recorded video.
“I spent 80% of my life in bed,” she said, her voice quivering and holding back tears. “I came here so I can dance again. If you can’t see yourself being able to do anything, being able to contribute, you’re not living. You may be alive, but you’re not living. All these people are giving hope to people after it’s been taken away.”
The 3rd annual Makers for Heroes will bring together 19 need-knowners from Israel, the US and even one hailing from Azerbaijan, and more than 200 makers, with the ultimate goal to expand this model around the world.
“Everyone affiliated with TOM speaks the same language,” TOM CEO Edun Sela, marveled. From the way products will be marketed to how volunteers speak to one another everyone has adopted this universal language of kindness, empathy and respect. “In that sense, it’s truly amazing at how different, but similar our communities are worldwide.”
And as for this global phenomenon originating in Israel? Sela hopes it’s just the beginning of a revolution.
“I think Israel is not only the Startup Nation, but has the potential to be the Social Impact Nation. This is true Tikkun Olam in the 21st Century,” he said.