‘A win-win situation’

The Knesset seamlessly integrates people with disabilities among its 550 employees – and is teaching other government offices to do the same.

Directors-general of 20 government ministries take part in a conference to learn about integrating workers with disabilities (photo credit: KNESSET SPOKESMAN'S OFFICE)
Directors-general of 20 government ministries take part in a conference to learn about integrating workers with disabilities
Every day, Israeli newspapers are filled with stories of what Knesset members did and said, the laws they passed, the arguments they had, but little is said about the people who make sure the Knesset runs smoothly each day, and their impact on our society.
Tamar Klein, 33, works as an assistant in the Knesset’s training department. She makes sure the Knesset’s 550 employees are caught up on professional course work and helps organize seminars and continuing education.
“I really enjoy my job; it’s very interesting, and I get to meet a lot of good people,” she tells The Jerusalem Post.
“The Knesset is a great place to work.”
Klein has cerebral palsy.
“I have CP from birth,” she says. “My parents always insisted that I can still use my hand and foot, and in the Knesset, I do everything normally, like every other worker.”
Walking through the Knesset’s corridors, one may not even notice that 20 of the Knesset’s workers have disabilities, since they’re integrated so seamlessly into the daily routine: An usher might help you find the office of an MK you can’t find, a cafeteria worker might clear your tray, or a phone operator might answer your call.
These 20 workers have different disabilities at different levels, including cerebral palsy, autism, Asperger’s and Down’s syndrome, and range in age from 30 to 50. Some are married and some are not, and they come from different sectors in Israeli society – secular, religious, Jewish and Arab.
Some, like Klein, work as assistants. Others distribute mail to MKs; work in the Knesset printing office, its legal, bookkeeping or human resources departments or at its visitor center; or as phone operators, drivers or ushers.
“I was welcomed to the department with open arms, and I am treated completely equally. I’m not made to feel like I’m part of a handicapped group,” Klein says.
“They don’t make any concessions for me,” she adds, quite proudly.
Nadav Halperin, 31, whose CP is more severe than Klein’s, is a fixture at the Knesset. He can often be found at his computer at the entrance to a seemingly endless corridor of MKs’ offices, happy to point visitors in the direction of the parliamentarian they want to meet.
Halperin is also an usher inside the plenum, and excitedly recounts the day he was given his dream task – to pass a note to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu’s parliamentary adviser, Perach Lerner, gave Halperin a document, and he brought it to the prime minister.
“It was very exciting,” Halperin recalls. “He said ‘thank you very much,’ and since then, he asks me how I’m doing every time he sees me.”
THE KNESSET began employing people with disabilities in 2006, during Dalia Itzik’s term as Speaker, with help from Israel Elwyn, an organization that seeks to help people with disabilities find jobs and live more independent lives, and Shekel – Community Services for People with Special Needs.
In recent years, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and Knesset director-general Ronen Plott expanded the project, and the latter has been encouraging others to adopt it.
Plott sees the Knesset’s model of employing people with disabilities as something that can be expanded to all government ministries. To encourage colleagues to follow his lead, he held a conference at the Knesset in September for directors-general to learn more about how they can integrate such workers.
“We’re proud of this initiative and proud to have others join us,” Edelstein told the senior managers of 20 ministries, including the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry, at the conference. “The Knesset passes laws and commits other people to do things; therefore, we saw it as our responsibility to commit ourselves to this project.”
Plott explains that government offices have an important role in integrating people with disabilities into society.
“Their dedication to their work and their contributions to the Knesset are important, as is what they gain by working in an important place like the Knesset. It enhances their self-confidence, their status in society and their character,” he says of such employees.
Eli Groner, director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office and chairman of the government ministries’ directors-general forum, told those at the conference that he was deeply impressed by the Knesset’s integration of workers with disabilities.
“The Knesset’s project is making a first-rate social statement. It’s a win-win situation for the workplace, the employee and society,” Groner said.
Also at the conference was MK Ilan Gilon of Meretz, who had polio as a child.
He uses a scooter to get around the Knesset and sometimes walks with a cane. He often proposes legislation to help people with disabilities.
He encouraged the directors-general to follow in the Knesset’s example, saying: “It is not just a privilege to employ people with disabilities, but a social way of thinking, to allow every individual in our society to reach his or her goals.”
IN 2013, the State Comptroller’s Report said that barely 2 percent of government employees had disabilities, even though over 5% of the population fell into this category.
The comptroller criticized the Civil Service Commission for not taking the initiative to ensure appropriate representation for such people.
As such, MK Nurit Koren (Likud), who also attended the conference at the Knesset, thinks that encouragement is not enough, and that government offices should be required to employ people with disabilities.
To that end, she and fellow Likud MK Yoav Kisch proposed a bill mandating that 3% of all civil servant positions be filled by people with disabilities within a year after the bill becomes a law, and for the figure to rise to 5% after that. MK Itzik Shmuly (Zionist Union) submitted similar legislation.
In June, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved the initiative, and it passed a preliminary reading in the Knesset. It is expected to go to its first reading during the Knesset’s winter session, which begins in mid-October.
“Today there are over a million men, women and children with disabilities in Israel, and most of them are not working,” Koren told the Post. “Employing people with disabilities is good for all sides – for the workers, who get out of the house, meet new people and integrate into society, and for the market, because employing people with disabilities will bring an additional NIS 5 billion into the state’s coffers. In addition, the bill will decrease the amount paid in National Insurance allowances.”
Klein agrees that employing such people is a no-brainer.
“It’s important that private companies and the public sector integrate people with disabilities, because we do great work and contribute a lot,” she says. “There’s no need to fear it – we’re very good workers.”