Daring to dream

There is always room for improvement in advocating toward greater realization of civil rights for people with disabilities, Passover and its message of freedom from bondage are in the air.

shalva370 (photo credit: courtesy)
(photo credit: courtesy)
President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel was not only an important milestone in the Israel-US relationship, but also a significant milestone on the journey toward inclusion of individuals with disabilities in society. Efrat Dotan and Matanel Biton, two young adults with special needs, who are familiar with the White House, were personally invited by US Ambassador Dan Shapiro to join him as President Obama addressed the Israeli people this past Thursday.
I cannot adequately express the heartfelt excitement this invitation generated.
Allow me to give you some background.
It was a hot summer day in July 2009 when my SHALVA associate Asaf Finkelstein barged into my office, visibly upset, and told me he just read a major study and broad survey of Israelis in which half stated that they did not want to be around individuals with disabilities.
There and then we committed ourselves to finding a way to fight this prejudice, with the full realization that this was not something we could do by ourselves. We therefore trained two SHALVA young adults as reporters who would interview famous Israeli personalities.
Efrat is 29 years old and has Down syndrome, while Matanel is 23 and has developmental disabilities.
We approached the largest Israeli online Hebrew news service, Ynet, to host a short clip of the interview weekly on their front page. In this manner we hoped familiarity would whittle away at this prejudice.
Ynet made Efrat and Matanel certified reporters and on December 3, 2009, President Shimon Peres granted the first “Special Interview” during his visit to SHALVA on the United Nations Day of Persons with Disabilities, followed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, supermodel Bar Refaeli and 40 leaders from every field of endeavor.
The interviews became very popular, with online talkbacks which ran the gamut from warm accolades to ugly prejudice.
Efrat and Matanel, via their sincerity and charisma, charmed not only those interviewed, but also enormous numbers of readers. They effortlessly bridged the gaps that separate individuals with disabilities from those without – the desired change had begun.
WHAT WE didn’t anticipate was that Efrat and Matanel had now set their sights beyond Israel and wanted to interview the president of the United States.
It is notable that they did not have a private agenda, but recognized that the president is the most powerful man in the world and sought his help to improve the rights of people with disabilities worldwide.
We realized that this was a unique opportunity to demonstrate just how much individuals with disabilities can accomplish with appropriate assistance, if only allowed to dream, and so we decided to do our utmost to make it happen and to record their journey.
SHALVA found a willing partner in Shari Arison, who provided the funding for their adventure, along with a film crew, to New York and Washington, where they interviewed leading personalities and sought to interview the president.
I was there, and it was amazing to witness their personal growth and disarming interaction with those they met and interviewed. They were hosted in both the east and west wing of the White House, but the president’s schedule did not allow them to meet.
The resulting documentary, Special Interview, is both uplifting and inspiring and is a powerful advocacy tool in the battle for the civil rights of people with disabilities. It sheds light on a sector of the population many of whom are still left in the shade, invisible and isolated and all too often not given a proper chance to realize their potential.
Social standards sometimes prevent them from dreaming or aspiring to any achievement beyond their allocated realm.
Efrat and Matanel dared to dream and to actively, consistently pursue that dream. With much love they force even the unwilling 50 percent to look them in the eyes. Comfortable borders suddenly become uncomfortable, and hopefully many will begin to understand how meaningful it is to welcome and empower those who are different.
On Thursday afternoon, Efrat and Matanel arrived at the National Convention Center to hear the president, and the entrance was absolutely mobbed with people of all ages waiting to push through security and enter. I was touched to see the extraordinary sensitivity shown as the crowd parted and opened up to allow them safe and courteous passage.
They were seated close to President Obama, and while they did not have the opportunity to interview or meet him, they were welcomed warmly by Ambassador Shapiro and Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren.
Clearly, while there is always room for improvement and much remains to be done in advocating toward greater realization of civil rights for people with disabilities, Passover and its message of freedom from bondage are in the air.
The author is the founder and director of SHALVA, the Israel Association for Mentally and Physically Challenged Child in Israel.The documentary Special Interview was chosen for international distribution by Ruth Diskin Films.