Is Israel creating a utopia for the disabled?

“Technological solutions can be absolutely transformative in helping people with disabilities live more independent and productive lives.”

A person with ALS uses the Sesame Enable application to operate his smartphone hands-free. (photo credit: Courtesy)
A person with ALS uses the Sesame Enable application to operate his smartphone hands-free.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When musical superstar Itzhak Perlman won the 2016 Genesis Prize – known as the “Jewish Nobel” – he brought the issue of inclusion of people with disabilities in Israeli society to the forefront. Perlman chose to direct his $1 million in prize money toward projects fostering greater inclusion.
Two years later, as we mark the International Day For People With Disabilities (December 3), many of these projects are under way and other, unrelated and equally innovative initiatives are sprouting or growing across the Jewish state.
They are enabling more children and adults – even some with severe disabilities – to work and play alongside their “typical” peers.
For example, in October, ALEH announced it has joined forces with the Construction and Housing Ministry and Merhavim Regional Council to develop a new, inclusive town in southern Israel. The town will be named Daniel, and is meant to enhance Israel’s disability and rehabilitative care offerings.
“Daniel will create an inclusive community, where individuals with disabilities will be treated with the utmost dignity and respect and enjoy full access to necessary medical and special educational support,” said ALEH Negev-Nahalat Eran director-general Avi Wortzman.
Named for four-year-old Daniel Tregerman, who was killed in 2014 when a mortar fired from Gaza struck his home on Kibbutz Nahal Oz, the town will be constructed west of Ofakim, adjacent to ALEH Negev-Nahalat Eran, the network’s southern-based rehabilitative village.
Daniel will integrate residents with severe, complex disabilities as part of the communal fabric and provide housing for medical professionals at ALEH’s new neuro-orthopedic rehabilitation hospital, which is slated to open on the ALEH Negev-Nahalat Eran campus early next year.
“It will help solve Israel’s persistent housing crisis by providing affordable homes and gainful, uniquely meaningful employment at ALEH’s rehabilitative village and hospital,” Wortzman said.
He believes that within the next five years, an estimated 1,000 employees will start working at ALEH Negev and 1,000 more will regularly volunteer. These people and their families, and families of patients receiving regular or long-term care at the hospital, will be prime candidates for the new town, which will have 500 housing units.
Young couples from the region looking for community and career soldiers serving in the area are also expected to consider Daniel.
“The establishment of new towns in the South will bring more people from Israel’s Center to the South, strengthening the economy and increasing the safety of the overall area,” said Construction and Housing Minister Yoav Gallant.
Wortzman said the idea for Daniel started three years ago, after Gallant toured ALEH Negev and asked where doctors, nurses and family members of patients live. A team of professionals have since then been researching and planning Daniel, which the government approved in August. The hope is to start selling apartments within two years.
Daniel will be open to religious and nonreligious residents, Wortzman said, describing an environment with “pretty houses and green spaces,” and an emphasis on the environment, community gardens, parks and centers. All houses and communal spaces will be accessible.
“A child raised in this kind of place will be a healthier kid,” said Wortzman. “I see this as a utopia where children with disabilities and others will be able to live together and interact with each other. I am considering living there myself.”
Transformative technologies
For those unwilling to move south but interested in working in the field of developing life-changing assistive technologies to help individuals with disabilities improve their lives, more options are available now, too.
The Finance Ministry, Israel Innovation Authority and Foundation for the Development of Services for the Disabled at the National Insurance Institute granted approximately NIS 6 million to 13 companies this year to support the research and development of assistive technology for people with disabilities.
“Technological solutions can be absolutely transformative in helping people with disabilities live more independent and productive lives,” said Naomi Krieger Carmy, head of the Societal Challenges division at the IIA.
However, she explained that developing such technologies can be years-long projects and have less direct return on investment (ROI). Her team is re-defining ROI for assistive technologies so that the definition includes not only financial ROI but also “impact ROI” – how much it helps individuals integrate into society and contribute to the country’s gross domestic product.
“If you have a technology that helps someone with disabilities go out and work, you might sell the product for however much you are going to sell it for, but for the economy, this product has a huge return,” Carmy said. “It is turning someone who relies on welfare and is at home into someone who is working and contributing to GDP. You have to look at the individual product level and at the societal level.”
The IIA’s 2018 cohort included, for example, Sesame Enable, makers of “Open Sesame,” a hands-free smartphone app for people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), spinal cord injuries or other medical challenges that limit the use of hands.
Using the front-facing camera of any Android device, Open Sesame tracks head movements to unlock touch-free texting, social activity, Web searching and much more.
Sesame Enable was founded by Israeli technology expert-turned-social entrepreneur Oded Ben Dov. Several years ago, Ben Dov was demonstrating a game he developed on TV that was controlled using head gestures. Giora Livne, a former Navy commander who is a quadriplegic, saw the program. The next day, Livne called Ben Dov and said, “Hello, I can’t move my hands or legs. Could you make me a smartphone I could use?”
Ben Dov, who is fluent is nine programming languages, decided to take on Livne’s challenge.
Livne said he wanted a smartphone to order flowers for his wife. Ben Dov realized there are millions worldwide suffering from disabilities limiting the use of their hands and preventing them from doing activities like using mobile devices. With Open Sesame, that freedom and control is restored.
“Some people just want to go on Facebook and reconnect with the world,” Ben Dov said. “Children want to play the same games their classmates are playing.” He said the company is currently working on a selfie feature.
Other funded projects include SensPD, which offers early objective detection of autism only a few hours after birth by interfacing with existing ear monitoring devices, thus enabling diagnosis of autism in real-time; Click2Speak’s groundbreaking assistive on-screen keyboard, catering to people with motor impairments who cannot use a standard keyboard, enabling easy communication and access to Windows-based PC and tablet applications; and Resymmetry, which is developing a revolutionary smart robotic wheelchair to reduce the risk of secondary medical conditions and discomfort resulting from prolonged motionless sitting.
The IIA grants up to 65% of the approved R&D budget to companies operating for fewer than five years, 30 to 50% of the approved R&D budget for a company operating for more than five, and 85% of the approved R&D budget for a non-profit corporation – up to NIS 900,000 per project annually.
“This can really make it or break it for a lot of these companies,” Carmy said.
She noted that the ecosystem around assistive technology has been growing. In addition to her work at the IIA, she cited several new assistive technology incubators and programs. The A3i accelerator, for example, operates through a partnership between PresenTense, Beit Issie Shapiro, The Ruderman Family Foundation and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. A3i offers intensive training, mentorship and one-on-one consulting for those interested in developing assistive technology.
There is a relatively new innovation center for entrepreneurs and researchers to develop devices and technologies for children with special needs at Jerusalem’s ALYN Hospital.
The Reut Group’s TOM: Tikkun Olam Makers is the world’s largest global movement of communities connecting makers, designers, developers and engineers with people with disabilities to develop technological solutions for everyday challenges. Designs are free and available for any user to adapt for their needs.
Migdal Or is putting these assistive technologies to work.
A project of the Rashi Foundation, Migdal Or offers a multi-service center dedicated to advancing people with blindness or visual impairments toward functioning and inclusion in the workplace. It has branches in Haifa, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Beersheba.
According to Shiri Hochman, director of the division for diagnosis, training and placement, individuals from all sectors and backgrounds receive individualized training and instruction and are introduced to assistive technologies that could enable them to stay in the workplace. These include optical magnifiers, canes, color-detector and tactile technologies for computers or mobile phones, and customized software and smartphone applications.
“We assess what they need, assess their ability to use assistive technologies, and then offer a vocational rehabilitation program,” Hochman explained.
The NGO has a team of professionals looking into what software is most necessary in the current job market and can help ensure it is made accessible.
“Many lose sight during their time of employment, for age-related or other reasons and they often stop working as a result,” Hochman said. “With assistive technology, they can remain productive members of society.”
Child’s play
What about children with special needs?
For those with learning difficulties that preclude their reading, “The Israel Audiobook Project” is now available.
Founded by Rashi Kuhr, an educational psychologist with more than 20 years of experience in the Israeli school system, Israel Audiobook is like the PJ Library for audio reading, offering one monthly free audiobook to kids with relevant learning disabilities through the school system.
Kuhr said it is well-documented that audiobooks are extremely valuable tools enabling children with all types of learning disabilities to be exposed to books. These books are already widely used in the American education system, but in Israel age- and education-level appropriate audiobooks are not easily accessible and their potential to help struggling readers is untapped.
Kuhr started his project less than a year ago by contacting the Dahl family and acquiring the rights to record Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Since then, he and fellow volunteers have raised funds that have been used to acquire the rights and produce 10 more books – new and classics. Now, in addition to their distribution through 600 schools, Israel Audiobook is partnering with Almanarah to translate the books into Arabic.
“I test kids who are smart and curious, but who think they hate books merely because they have a learning disability,” said Kuhr. He said turning them on to audiobooks shows them “how amazing the world of books can be.”
Relatedly, in Ra’anana, Beit Issie Shapiro received a grant specifically from the Genesis Prize of NIS 70,000 to create a series of concerts targeted toward young children with disabilities.
“Our mission is to integrate people with disabilities into the community,” explained Sigal Winter, Beit Issie Shapiro’s resource development and public relations manager.
Winter said the organization found that many families with children with disabilities report a lack of opportunities to participate in the local cultural and social scenes. As such, a series of family-friendly concerts were designed with the disability community in mind. The concerts included sign language, calmer-than-usual music and softer theater lighting. In addition, the doors to the auditorium were left open and the entryway filled with pouf chairs for children who could not access the auditorium or sit still for the entire hour-and-a-half production.
Winter said that when the first production opened, tickets sold out in two days, but mostly to families of mainstream youth. When staff investigated what happened, they found that families of children with disabilities were not even looking at the information about the concerts, assuming it could not be for them.
Once Beit Issie Shapiro recruited a more mixed crowd for the events, surveys showed they were huge successes.
“Families with disabled children and those with ‘normal’ children both enjoyed the events,” said Winter, explaining that the environment was creative, engaging and harmonic for all types of children.
“We still need to deal with the physical accessibility of our buildings and buses,” said IIA’s Carmy. “A lot has changed in these very brief years. When it comes to inclusion in Israeli society, there is much about which to be encouraged.”