The unfortunate truth is that Israeli society is still afraid of people with disabilities.
I say “still,” because in 1988, Israel passed “Chok HaShiluv,” an integration law to provide special needs children with more opportunities and create integrated programming in educational settings, and the Israeli public has yet to fully feel the impact of that law. Still, after 27 years.
This is due in large part to the fact that too many of us have not been taught otherwise. We don’t know how to approach the topic or individuals with disabilities themselves. As a result, the stigma grows stronger.
Obviously, this makes it quite difficult for people with disabilities to flourish, to truly reach their potential. But it is important to realize that the lack of integration is also holding back Israelis who don’t have disabilities.
How do we set things straight and charge forward?
Clearly, children don’t guess how they are supposed to act and react to social situations and the people in their lives. They learn how they are supposed to behave based on the examples that are set for them by their parents, family members, teachers, and other figures of authority. This means that the beginning of the solution rests with us. We, the adults, have a responsibility to model behaviors that promote both compassion and inclusion.
But it is also essential that the appropriate educational (and recreational) frameworks are set in place. We must carry Chok HaShiluv through to the end and institute integration from a young age. The benefits are clear.
When children with and without disabilities are brought together in the school setting, the experience of being together lays the foundation for a lifetime of acceptance and understanding. Very often, words aren’t even exchanged, but non-verbal interactions still make a huge impact.
After school programs involving activities like art or swimming that are designed for children with or without disabilities are prime examples of integration that greatly benefit everyone involved. Participants with disabilities are given an opportunity to interact with children their own age, a steppingstone for social and emotional growth, and their peers without disabilities are placed in leadership roles that expand their minds and their hearts.
This is not just speculation, but the findings of numerous educational research studies. Indeed, the research shows that typically, developing children in inclusive classrooms are better able to accept differences and to see their classmates achieving — despite their disabilities. They also seem to be more aware of the needs of others.
Yet, the research also shows that classroom time together is not enough to ensure a beneficial experience for all involved. For optimal results, the professionals must structure the classroom environment and implement a curriculum that supports all of the children. This includes designing the physical space to encourage integration, promoting engagement through play, providing small group activities that facilitate interaction and exploration, and providing a positive imitative model for the children — again, with adults setting an example.
I am particularly proud to be associated with an Israeli facility that is already setting our Chok HaShiluv dreams in motion: ALEH Negev-Nahalat Eran, a cutting-edge rehabilitative village designed to provide residential care for children with severe disabilities as they grow from adolescents into young adults.
At a nursery school on the ALEH Negev campus, children with and without disabilities learn and play together twice a week. Toys are shared, and play on the playground is lively. No one seems to notice the differences between the children because, ultimately, the differences just don’t matter. The interactions observed during integrated programming such as this make it clear that, as human beings, our inclination is to be kind to those with special needs, to look beyond differences to the things that unite us.
It’s time for us to set a better example for our children and make integrated programming a priority, ensuring that all children have the kinds of positive interactions with people with disabilities that will move our society forward. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain. We simply cannot wait another 27 years.
Johanna Arbib-Perugia is president of the International Board of ALEH, Israel’s largest network of facilities for children with severe physical and cognitive disabilities. Previously, she served as chairman of the Keren Hayesod (United Israel Appeal) Board of Trustees.