Jerusalem art school fosters design talent among students with disabilities

Jerusalem art school fosters design talent among students with disabilities

Asaf Ventura poses with his floating gym at an Israeli army rehabilitation center in Haifa.
Photo courtesy of Ventura
Asaf Ventura poses with his floating gym at an Israeli army rehabilitation center in Haifa. Photo courtesy of Ventura

JERUSALEM — The shrapnel that exploded into Asaf Ventura took a lot away from him: His body and brain were shredded, his right hand was mangled. He was unable to fire his gun, swing his tennis racquet or maintain focus.

But over time, Ventura realized the injuries he endured during a mission with his army unit in the West Bank gave him a new perspective, which as it turned out made him a great industrial designer.

“I remember in the hospital thinking, ‘I’m only 22 and I’ve lost my body and my looks. I can’t do any of the things I used to do,’” he said. “Eventually I realized that because I don’t think like a normal person [anymore], I can actually do some new things with design technology.”

Ventura, now 35, discovered his talent for design years later — attributing it to the effect of the metal fragments that tore through his brain — when he became a student at the prestigious Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem. He credits his experience at the school with helping him come ”back to real life.”

“Bezalel Academy demands 100 percent from you, and I have 72 percent disability,” he said, referring to a state scale for physical disability that goes from 0 to 100 percent. “But they gave me a chance to succeed. I learned from amazing teachers and got to work with really talented classmates.”

Bezalel, a 111-year old mainstay of the Israeli art world, is known for producing top-notch talent in a variety of fields. The school also prides itself on promoting an inclusive creative process for people with disabilities.

About a decade ago, Bezalel started a class in industrial design for people with special needs. Over the years, students have created dozens of products: costumes that encourage children to move during physical therapy; air-cushioned prosthetic legs with superhero designs; fashionable clothes that people with limited range of movement can easily get on and off.

Due to this kind of work, Bezalel in December won the $50,000 Ruderman Prize in Inclusion, which recognizes organizations that foster the full inclusion of people with disabilities. The Ruderman Family Foundation has been awarding the prize for the past five years; this year the $250,000 was split among five organizations around the world involved in art, technology and media.

“We loved the fact that Bezalel is a very well known art and design school, and not a disability organization, yet they still choose to include people with disabilities in what they do,” said Shira Ruderman, the Israel director of the Ruderman Family Foundation. “We think they are an example of how Israel can use innovation to change the Israeli mindset on disability.”

With the prize money, Bezalel will launch two undergraduate courses next fall in “inclusive design.” And this week, the school began awarding scholarships — worth more than $1,000 each — to students whose final projects are in inclusive design.

“We are committed to increasing awareness of people with disabilities and the difficulties they face,” said Liv Sperber, the vice president for international affairs at Bezalel, who applied for the Ruderman Prize. “This allows us to get more students involved in creating beautiful and inclusive designs.”

Luca Dalcera, 28, learned Monday that he is eligible for a scholarship for his project. In his fourth and final year of school, he is designing an inflatable pillow to help lift a person with mobility issues out of a seat. The idea came from helping manage the care of his wife’s grandfather, who has Alzheimer’s disease and is relegated to a chair.

“To pick him up takes two people because he’s a big guy, so that means a family member has to be around 24/7 in addition to an aid worker,” Dalcera said. “The situation is very difficult for the whole family. So I wanted to create something that doesn’t solve the problem, but at least eases it.”

Like other fourth-year students, he is in the conceptualizing stage of his project. Starting next semester, Dalcera plans to begin developing and testing designs. Money is tight, he said, and the grant will help him “create a better project” than he could afford otherwise. Dalcera is already working on a patent for the design.

There were no grants when Ventura graduated from Bezalel in 2015, but he said there were other forms of support. The school challenged him like any other student, he said, but also accommodated his cognitive and physical disabilities with services like mentors and options for test taking.

For his final project, Ventura built a floating gym for people rehabilitating from injuries. Over the six month-plus process, he was helped by some of the people who were part of his own rehabilitation. Madatech — the national science museum, where he interned for two years before Bezalel — let him use its tools and space. And wounded soldiers at Beit Halochem Haifa, the army center where he did more than four years of intensive rehabilitation, helped him test his designs in the training pool.

“In the pool, people can do all kinds of things they wouldn’t be able to do otherwise,” Ventura said. “They are lighter, of course. But also, they don’t have to feel ashamed of their bodies. Underwater, nobody can see your scars.”

In the summer before he graduated, Bezalel displayed the gym, which Ventura dubbed the Venduza (a portmanteau of his last name and meduza, Hebrew for jellyfish), along with hundreds of other students’ art and design projects. Bezalel’s annual exhibition draws some 25,000 people. Ventura appeared on Israeli TV and had visits with several government ministers.

He went on to found a company called Left Hand Design, aiming to bring the Venduza to market. Ventura now lives with his father in Haifa and has taken out loans to produce an upgraded prototype of the gym. He is looking for investors. In the meantime, Ventura also works part-time at Madatech, where he designs exhibitions.

Avital Sandler-Leoff, the director of JDC-Israel Unlimited — a partnership between the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Ruderman Family Foundation and the Israeli government — said not all people with disabilities are able to find the support Ventura did. The country is 30 years behind the United States when it comes to services for people with disabilities, she said, and the lag is reflected in social attitudes. According to a JDC study, more than half of Israelis are not willing to be neighbors with or rent an apartment to someone with a mental disability.

But Israel’s embrace of high tech has been driving progress lately, and institutes of higher education have the potential to take the lead, Sandler-Leoff said. Her group plans to launch a program for autistic students at three universities this month, as well as a curriculum on disability studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem next month.

“There are more and more places like Bezalel, where a new generation of young people are saying, ‘We want to be part of society. Let us contribute,’” she said.