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PRESIDENT REUVEN RIVLIN is flanked by his wife, Nechama, and businessman Uri Ben-Ari on at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem as they pose with outstanding special education teachers recognized by Ben-Ari’s Athena Fund for their innovative teaching technologies..(Photo by: MARK NEYMAN/GPO)
Recognizing exceptional teachers of students with special needs
“We want special education teachers to receive the same recognition that the 120 outstanding soldiers receive on Israel Independence Day.”
Sixteen teachers of youngsters with special needs received certificates at a ceremony at the President’s Residence on Monday.

The first-time recognition ceremony was initiated by Uri Ben-Ari, a businessman working in the technology sector, who in 2006 established the Athena Fund which is supported by philanthropists from the third sector NGOs and other non-profits as well as by donors from the business community.

Ben-Ari was convinced that computers would help children with special needs realize their hidden potential. He decided that it was not enough for every child to have a computer, but that every teacher should have one as well.

Towards this end, he works closely with the Education Ministry and the Teachers Union as well as many other institutions and organizations.

Laptops, science tablets and iPads have not been limited to special-needs teachers, but have been widely distributed to more than 15,000 school and kindergarten teachers in 120 municipalities and regional authorities throughout the country.

The name of the fund is taken from the Greek goddess of wisdom, because so much knowledge and wisdom can be stored in a computer.

The teachers who use their iPads to communicate with and teach special-needs children have a wealth of knowledge stored in a small device, Ben-Ari told President Reuven Rivlin, and the results have been absolutely amazing.

Blind children can assemble a robot and learn to code, and autistic children who have not responded to their parents in years are suddenly communicating with them, not necessarily by talking, but by using their computers. Even children who are intellectually disabled are displaying talents which might have gone unnoticed were it not for the computer as an intermediary.

What is most important, Ben-Ari emphasized, is that the iPad enables teachers to give each child individual attention in accordance with his or her needs, and this in turn produces incredible results.

Teaching is not a particularly popular or even respected profession, Ben-Ari observed, which was all the more reason to give public recognition to those special education teachers who were so dedicated and who gave so much of their time.

“We want the public to relate to teachers in the same way as they relate to high-ranking army officers,” he said. “We want special education teachers to receive the same recognition that the 120 outstanding soldiers receive on Israel Independence Day.”

This gave Rivlin the opportunity to talk about soldiers who are graduates of special-needs education programs and who volunteer for the army – and fight to be accepted despite whatever disabilities they might have. “Youngsters like that who become soldiers are truly outstanding, and it is important to recognize and encourage them,” said Rivlin, who hosts an annual reception for such soldiers.

Rivlin recalled that it was not so long ago with children with disabilities and special needs were hidden away out of sight because families considered them to be an embarrassment and an obstacle to a good marriage for a sibling. He was happy that this is no longer the case.

Rivlin said that he was aware of how technology helps youngsters with special needs to do things they could never do before. “It helps their families too,” he said.

Yaffa Ben David, the Secretary of the Teachers Union said that “advanced technology of which we were initially afraid, has become a basic tool and a key factor to success. Teachers are devoted and they work overtime. It’s not that the education is special. The teachers are special.”

Both she and Ben Ari reacted to the recent barrage of vitriol that Rivlin has been subjected to on social media.

Ben-Ari commended Rivlin on his integrity, while Ben David said that the nation that has Rivlin as its president is indeed fortunate.

To be a teacher is important, but to be a special education teacher requires one to be much more knowledgeable and multi-disciplined, said Aviva Shamir of Beersheba, who has a 31-year career in education and currently heads the special education division in the southern district. Shamir started out teaching in a regular school for five years and then taught in schools for the deaf. Special education teachers meet regularly to exchange information and to work out more effective programs, she said.

Rivlin noted that Arab children with special needs are not getting sufficient attention.

Although Arab teachers are doing their best, Arab special- needs children are not tolerated in the wider community, he said. “We must do more for them and give them the same opportunities as we give to Jewish children.”

He was particularly concerned about children in the Beduin community, which is cut off from the mainstream even though it cares for such children.

He urged Athena to pay more attention to such children, and do even more for them than their demographic ratio warrants.

“We are all part of one nation,” he said. “The humane aspect overrides any nationalistic or religious considerations.”
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