Wine Therapy: In the name of his daughter

'This child has changed my life. She did something for me that no one ever did before. She taught me to rejoice.'

Goose liver carpaccio and Halva mousse. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Goose liver carpaccio and Halva mousse.
Philosopher Peter Drucker once said that “the best way to predict the future is to create it.” This is a perfect description of Oren Helman’s life story.
Helman, 46, is the senior vice president of the Israel Electric Company. In his role as electric company spokesman, he often appears in the media, and most people in the country know his face and voice.
What many people don’t know is that Helman is the father of a lovely six-year-old girl, a pupil in special education who has taught him a thing or two about love and accepting those who are different. His daughter gave him the motivation to advocate for people with special needs and to work tirelessly for their integration into the community in general, and into the workforce in particular.
Armed with a smile and great charm, he set up shop in government offices and has pushed for passing a revolutionary law that would require companies to employ a significant percentage of individuals with disabilities.
The Goal: To understand the power behind Oren Helman’s social activism
The Means: A gourmet meal at Blackstone in Ramat Gan and Merlot Reserve 2011 Manara Vineyard – Recanati Winery
How did you find out that your daughter had a problem?
When she was six months old, we went to the doctor for a routine check-up, and he said, “Your daughter has torticollis.” This happens when the muscles on one side of the neck are too tight, and we had to go to physiotherapy. As time went on, other issues developed. We saw that her development was delayed, in lying on the stomach, sitting and standing. At 18 months, we realized that her development stages were overly delayed, but there is no care system available for that age.
That must have been stressful...
Like every father and mother would be, we were very worried. But unlike many other people, I’m not one to deny the facts – I always face problems head-on. There was genetic testing that had to be seen by many specialists, and then some “nice” tests, such as head circumference, and so on. Finally she was diagnosed at the Child Development Institute, and they told us she had to go to a special-ed preschool. You won’t believe it, but her charisma helped me a lot.
In what way?
She’s a very charismatic child. It’s amazing, I’ve never met a person who doesn’t fall in love with her, and this meant that many people wanted to help her. They gave her occupational therapy and other interventions like speech therapy, even before she was supposed to speak.
Were there moments of weakness along the way?
The basic thing that my wife and I agree on is that if we could turn back the clock six-and-a-half years and see in the genetic test that she had a problem, we would still want her. We don’t regret it for one minute.
This child has changed my life. She did something for me that no one ever did before.
She taught me to rejoice, to understand that you don’t always have to be first in order to win. Sometimes just to participate in a competition is a big victory. If things take longer and are delayed – it’s not so terrible. You have to accept things that are different – and most importantly, to thumb your nose at the world, which isn’t always able to accept and include those who are different. I’ve learned to love her friends, children who are different and special. Every day, I discover once again that above all, an individual with disabilities has goodness.
On behalf of your daughter and her friends, you fought a heroic battle and initiated a proposed law that will require businesses to employ people with disabilities. What does this law specify?
The truth is that this battle is not for her, because I believe that she’ll be okay in the future. At any rate, a job will only be relevant for her 15 years down the road.
The idea behind this battle is that every government body that has 25 or more employees will be required to ensure that at least 3 percent of its hires are persons with disabilities, and to appoint a specific person who is responsible for their integration in the workplace. At present, the proposed law passed the first reading, but the elections have postponed finalization of the legislation [until] the next Knesset.
On the positive side, this means we can update the law so that beginning in 2017, all government bodies will be required to ensure that at least 5% of their employees are persons with disabilities.
Will this make Israel a trend-setter in this field?
Not at all. It’s already a norm throughout the world. Every enlightened nation requires by law the employment of persons with disabilities, because they recognize that society evades this and operates according to the NIMBY principle – “not in my backyard.”
There’s no choice – we have to make it a requirement.
How does it work in other countries?
In Germany, for example, every employer that has 25 employees or more must ensure that at least 5% of its employees are persons with disabilities. In the US, on January 1, a law went into effect stating that every employer that does $50,000 or more worth of business with the government must employ persons with disabilities. In other words, the US says, “If you don’t want to, don’t employ them – but don’t do business with me.”
Why is Israel different on this issue than other Western countries?
The problem begins with the fact that we have no fewer than eight government entities that assist people with disabilities: the Health, Education, Welfare and Social Services, Economy, Finance, Public Security, and Justice ministries, and the National Insurance Institute. Each one has its own policy, its own worldview, strategy and data.
There is no uniform policy governing integration of persons with disabilities – it’s a regulatory nightmare.
On the other hand, we have 150 to 200 nonprofit organizations that help persons with disabilities. There’s a nonprofit for every bone in the body. This means a big mess, and there’s no uniform law that applies to all. There are conflicting statistics about the number of persons with disabilities, and that leads to a divide-and-conquer mentality on the part of employers.
Was there an experience in your childhood that helped prepare you for your current reality?
In third grade, we moved to Givatayim and I joined a new class. I was overweight and domineering as a child, and I had a bad reputation as a kid. To this day, I remember that the whole class persecuted me. I remember my father came to protect me. They called me “Fatty” and made fun of me. I was an outcast, and I wet the bed until a very late age. Once, when I was 10, a friend came over after school and saw the plastic sheet on my bed. He said he would tell the whole class that I wet the bed at night. This was a big trauma, a kind of exploitation.
Don’t worry, there’s such a thing as karma.
You took the words right out of my mouth. Many years later, he was caught at the airport with 11,000 Ecstasy pills [laughs].
Seriously – I was embarrassed about it, and I remember that I sometimes came home crying and depressed. I still think, “Wow, I was so strong” – because those were times when I might have committed suicide.
Very harsh, degrading treatment, and this was from fourth to eighth grade. All this helps me to understand society’s treatment of people who are weaker.
When did you realize that your actions would change other people’s lives?
When MK Itzik Shmuli [Labor] sent me a photo of the voting board, showing that our law passed the first reading by a very large majority. This was a moment of pure joy, and we realized that at that moment we had succeeded in positively influencing the lives of entire generations – a first step on the way to changing the reality of their lives.
We still have a lot of work ahead of us. I only hope this law passes the third reading. I mean, when it becomes law on the legislative books of the State of Israel, that’s the day when I’ll say, “Okay, I did it” – although there are many other issues that need change.
Give us an example.
Every year, terrible surveys are published that indicate a lack of tolerance in Israeli society toward people with special needs. When I see the data from these surveys, it doesn’t depress me. I simply think that the people who think like that are miserable.
Whoever can’t accept others who are different is unfortunate. He’s the one with a disability.
That’s not a slogan, I truly relate to it that way. The problem is when many employers have similar opinions.
According to the statistics, you have a big job ahead of you.
I experienced many low points. It happens mainly when I speak to employers, and for some of them, it really doesn’t interest them. They simply don’t want employees with special needs in their business.
We heard that many people are contacting you to find work for their special-needs children.
Since my story became public, I have received thousands of requests.
One of the most touching requests came from the mother of a girl who has moderate learning difficulties, who told me, “My daughter is now learning how to make a salad; perhaps you can help her find work?” Do you understand? When you are a father, and you learn to be happy about the fact that your child, at age 20, learned how to make a salad, you already understand everything about life.
By the way, this girl seems to have found a job thanks to her mother’s request. What did she want for her daughter, after all? She wanted her to go to work, make salad for three hours and come home. She’s fighting for her daughter like a lioness.
One day, a man called me and said that he has a daughter with special needs, and he asked me to help her find work. We tried, but it wasn’t easy. So he asked me, “Tell me, Oren, what will be in 20 years from now? What will happen after I die, who will take care of my daughter?” I told him to start exercising, to push off the end for another 40 years. But after the joke, I told him the truth. That at the moment, I don’t have an answer, but we are working hard so that the situation will change.
Share a success story with us.
One woman contacted me via Facebook and told me that she has a son who is autistic and is also a gifted musician, and his dream is to be accepted into the IDF band. We got as high up as the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, to the head of the Human Resources Department and to other official offices, and today he serves in the IDF band! He got his opportunity, but it was a long, difficult ordeal, because it is hard to accept people who are different.
You are surrounded by so much emotion. When was the last time you laughed?
At the Israel Electric Company, I have a blind employee (Eyal Neufeld, pictured left) who works in community relations and investor relations on the capital market. At one of the conferences, we walked into the hall and he put his hand on my shoulder. At some point, his guide dog apparently got offended that I was leading the man and he wasn’t. We had insulted the dog’s ego, and it took a long time for us to convince him to come back. That was really funny, because guide dogs are trained, but they have emotions and they get offended.
What message do you want to impart to the readers?
A month ago, I recruited six amazing people, and together we set up a Facebook page called “Fair Chance.” These six people are listed as page managers, and together we promote awareness of the subject. Every day, we decide which posts to upload, personal stories, interviews, job opportunities for people with limitations. Anything that we feel is important to advance. It is important to us that as many people as possible join us, and that the message will keep spreading.
What are you the most proud of regarding your daughter?
Thanks to my daughter, I discovered my purpose in life. Integration for her community and for all those with special needs is my life’s work.