Inability to handle disability

The Joint Distribution Committee has launched a new initiative aimed at generating social change with regard to public attitudes toward those with disabilities.

Disabilities wheelchair disabled 521 (photo credit: Moshe Shai)
Disabilities wheelchair disabled 521
(photo credit: Moshe Shai)
In recent years, strides have been taken to make more public facilities accessible to people with physical disabilities, and buses are now a viable form of transport for wheelchair-bound people. But how much progress have we made in our own minds? How many of us display negative reflexes when we walk past someone with some sort of physical or mental handicap in the street? According to research cited by the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), we have quite some way to go on that score.
Avital Sandler-Loeff, director of the JDC’s Israel Unlimited program, is hopeful that a new initiative called “Friending” will go some way to redressing the imbalance in social attitudes.
“Friending is a unique program,” she says. “There is nothing like it anywhere else in the world. The idea behind Friending is to enable people with disabilities and people without disabilities to join forces in order to generate social change.
The idea is to raise awareness and to make the environment more friendly for people with disabilities.”
The Friending program is also supported by various ministries and other government bodies, the Arison Foundation, the Fishman Group, the Commission for Equal Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Ruderman Family Foundation.
“The Joint rolled out a series of pilot projects – I think there are 14 right now – and they bring the ministries together and they do innovative programs on including people with disabilities in society,” explains Jay Ruderman, who heads the family’s philanthropic organization, adding that the JDC plays an important liaison role between the various supportive bodies.
“The Joint fills in some of the gaps between the ministries. The Joint has the expertise in how to roll these pilot projects out, and it gives the government the chance to do something innovative, which might have been difficult for it to do on its own. It is a three-way partnership – the Joint funds a third, we fund a third and the government funds a third,” he says.
The bare statistics starkly underscore the need for Friending. According to JDCbacked research, Israel is home to 1.5 million people with disabilities, of whom 314,000 are children. Studies show that negative attitudes toward the disabled community are prominent and indicate that 70 percent of the general public keep their distance from people with mental disabilities and 41% are not entirely happy to have them as neighbors. This generates a sense of isolation among the disabled community, with 31% reported to be suffering from loneliness, compared with 4% of the general public; and 25% of people with severe disabilities report having no friends, as opposed to 8% of the general population. Studies also show that negative attitudes among employers are the main barrier facing the disabled in trying to join the workforce.
“People tend to think that when we talk about people with disabilities, we are talking about those in institutions, who are far away from us, and that is not true,” states Sandler-Loeff. “Ninety-four percent of people with disabilities live in the community.
One-third of the Israeli population has someone with disabilities within their close family or environment. I always ask people, when I go to give lectures about this, how many of them know people with disabilities from first hand, and you can see that a large amount of the public know people with disabilities. But when you don’t have people with disabilities in your family, you just don’t see them.”
FRIENDING IS designed to get the public not only to notice people with disabilities but to see them in a positive light and to accept them. One of the strategies Friending employs to achieve that desired end is to hold various public cultural events that incorporate both able-bodied and disabled performers. A couple of such recent outdoor shows featured four members of Jerusalem-based Psik Theater at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo and at the Mahaneh Yehuda market, which conveyed in a comical fashion the idea of offering help to people with disabilities only when assistance is requested.
“These events are cultural and social celebrations alike,” notes Sandler-Loeff.
“They are a celebration of togetherness, of acceptance and of empowerment. The general public is invited to join us and to enjoy unique cultural events together with us.”
Sandler-Loeff says that getting the general public to relate to disabled people at all is a challenge, but when it comes to those whose challenges are less obvious, the problem is compounded even further. “It is very easy to demonstrate changing attitudes towards people with physical disabilities, because you can imagine the wheelchair, but you need to take a virtual step to accommodate people with mental illnesses, with cognitive challenges and with developmental disabilities, to allow them to be part of the community. It’s a challenge and we’re not there yet. There are a lot of good things happening in Israel towards people with disabilities, but when you’re talking about attitudes we still have a huge way to go.”
She says that her department’s research in the field indicates that “the way to go” is to create platforms for people to be actively involved with one another on as regular a basis as possible. In addition to the outdoor fun in Jerusalem, there is a substantial Friending project under way in Beersheba: getting everyone together in a hands-on activity, which offers allaround benefits for local residents.
Patrons of the Center for Independent Living (CIL) on Yosef Ben-Matityahu Street have initiated a beautification and renovation project for the street, which is being actively supported by Ben-Gurion University students, at-risk youth and professionals. Together, they will give the street a facelift, as well as making it greener and more environmentally friendly.
Besides the construction and renovation work, irrigation systems with recycled water will be installed for water-efficient vegetation.
“The CIL people are working together with students to paint and decorate the street and to make a real change there, in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Beersheba,” explains Sandler-Loeff. “Local artists with disabilities are working with students from the university, and also from Sapir College and some members of the Israel Air Force, to do something for the good of the area, for everyone to enjoy. That is real change – physical and also in terms of the way people relate to each other.”
CIL already runs the Inka Café, a popular venue for students, local residents and members of the local business community, which is entirely operated by people with disabilities,. A large-scale street party is also planned for later this month.
“It is the collective action that brings people together on the same level,” says Sandler-Loeff. When working with someone who is disabled, she suggests that if “you look them in the eye and, for instance, you don’t look at their legs... you tend to forget they have a disability and you relate them just as a person... That’s the idea: people with disabilities are people with abilities.”
She says that Friending is a new departure for the JDC. “At the Joint we are used to providing services, but with this we understood that we have to create a situation in which people work together. And what we are doing also involves the fun of cultural activities, which is an efficient means of bridging gaps between people.
There is a saying: “NIMBY” – not in my back yard – but we aim for “YIMFY” – yes in my front yard. What is happening in Beersheba is an example of that. Here we have a service provided by people with disabilities who have become an asset for the whole neighborhood instead of a burden.”
There’s more to the Beersheba venture.
“After the work on the street is finished there, Ben-Gurion University will give out composters and people there will learn how to use them. The idea is that the positive energies and activities will snowball, and everyone will enjoy the fruits,” continues Sandler-Loeff. “As soon as you start with something like this, you raise awareness in all sorts of areas and the whole project escalates and resonates all over.
That is real ‘friending.’” Sooner or later, says Ruderman, we will all get to appreciate the challenges of reduced physical – and possibly mental – abilities. “People with disabilities are the largest minority in the country,” he observes. “Furthermore, it is a minority group that we will all end up joining as we age.”
Hold that thought.
For more information about the Friending program: