Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community embracing disability inclusion, integration

Reflecting an encouraging trend toward disability inclusion and acceptance in the haredi community, the findings were a welcome surprise to the conference attendees.

Wheelchair (illustrative) (photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
Wheelchair (illustrative)
(photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
In recent months, members of Israel’s haredi community made headlines, expressing strong opinions about the integration of children with disabilities into public and private educational frameworks. This group of outspoken, ultra-Orthodox parents made it clear to educators and government officials that they believe the only way forward is with separate tracks of study and socialization for children with disabilities.
However, a new survey conducted by Ono Academic College, Israel’s fastest growing institute of higher education, shows that these haredi parents are just a vocal minority and that the ultra-Orthodox community stands behind the inclusion of individuals in all societal frameworks, especially within the educational system.
The survey’s findings were presented for the first time to students, women with disabilities, mothers of children with disabilities, and educators in the haredi sector on Sunday, December 23, at a conference titled “Disability Inclusion and Integration in the Haredi Educational System,” hosted by Ono’s Haredi Campus in Jerusalem. The conference served as a forum for the attendees to learn from experts in the fields of education, special education and disability inclusion about the importance of creating a culture of understanding, encouragement and legitimization within their tight-knit community.
Reflecting an encouraging trend toward disability inclusion and acceptance in the haredi community, the findings were a welcome surprise to the conference attendees. Most notably, 84% of respondents believed that integrating children with disabilities into regular classes would positively impact both children with and without disabilities. And 93% of respondents agreed that it is important to allocate resources for the integration of children with disabilities into the educational system. 
The attendees were also surprised to learn that 77% of respondents believed that housing frameworks for individuals with disabilities should be developed in the heart of every neighborhood and community. This is in stark contrast to recent studies indicating Israeli citizens across religious and cultural lines find it difficult to accept individuals with disabilities as neighbors.
“For years, the attitude toward individuals in the haredi community fell within the court of hessed [acts of kindness] exclusively, but we are now shifting toward an understanding that it is a matter of equal rights,” said Dr. Haim Zicherman, academic director of Ono Academic College’s Haredi Campuses. “The survey data illustrates that there has been a significant change within the haredi world, and individuals with disabilities are now finding their place within the community.”
Yonit Efrati, director of community integration for the Justice Ministry’s Commission for Equal Rights for People with Disabilities, also spoke at the conference. She explained that while compassion and kindness are, in fact, core Jewish values – upon which the haredi community places a special emphasis – thinking about people with disabilities in this way is detrimental and will hamper any attempt to create a truly inclusive society. 
“WHEN WE look at someone with pity, we are actually putting ourselves above them. Even though it’s coming from a good place, we are distancing ourselves from them rather than bringing them closer. Israel’s equality laws make it clear that we must rework the educational system so that we are all operating on the same plane as part of the same system, and that it is clear that we are all deserving of the same rights,” said Efrati.
“In order to advance all people within the haredi world, we need to put our impulses and religious desire to do hessed, to ‘fix’ others, aside and work toward empowering them, reworking the framework so that everyone feels like equals.”
Geula Avidan, dean of students at Ono Academic College’s Haredi Campuses, echoed the sentiment. She explained that while “hessed is the Jewish inclination,” when it comes to disability inclusion and integration, it’s crucial that this isn’t our only motivation. “We need to think of individuals with disabilities as people first, not charity cases,” she said. “And we need to consider what they deserve, what they can contribute, and how we can help them achieve – in the classroom and beyond.”
According to current statistics, there are 1,400,000 individuals with disabilities in Israel and more than 25,000 of them are students. While 56% of these students have been integrated into the school system, activists like Efrati are disturbed by the figure, as it represents a steep decline from previous years and a step in the wrong direction.
“Proper educational integration begins with changing how we talk and think about individuals with disabilities, but it cannot end there. Real societal change occurs when we alter the system itself,” explains Efrati. “Instead of figuring out how to fit the individual with disabilities into the existing system, we have begun rebuilding the system to accommodate and include everyone.”
Judging by the Ono Academic College survey, the haredi community is all for this kind of educational recalibration. In fact, the majority of haredi respondents are not only open to the integration of students with disabilities, but believe it would be beneficial to have their children learn in a class taught by a teacher with physical or sensory disabilities.
“It is at the very core of our beliefs that ‘every person is created in the image of God,’ but we must stop saying it if we don’t put it into practice in our lives,” said Prof. Tova Hartman, dean of the Ono Academic College Faculty of Humanities. “In every corner of our society, we must do everything possible to ensure that every child and every adult is provided with the same opportunities. We also need to realize how much individuals with disabilities positively impact our lives, enhance our academic frameworks and thus our ability to learn, grow and become the best versions of ourselves.”