Thursday, May 3, 2018

Aleh is now "educating" our schoolchildren about disabilities

Teacher in wheelchair [Illustrative image via Getty]
Everyone loves to compare Israel with the Western world even though we are situated smack in the center of the Middle East. Usually Israel fares well. But when you juxtapose Israel's attitude to institutions for children with disabilities to that of the West, it's another story. The contrast couldn't be starker or more disheartening.

Recently, someone I know met up with an individual involved with the management of a social welfare organization in a country that will remain anonymous. That person gave me this account:
"I had a conversation recently with a senior executive in an overseas (non-Israeli, in other words) social welfare organization. Let's call her Mary.
Mary and her colleagues had been hosts to an Israeli delegation made up of visiting senior executives of multiple similar groups -- Israeli groups. It was a kind of mutual fact-finding and learning exchange exercise. The Israeli organizations in the visiting delegation represented different parts of Israel's social welfare spectrum. Mary told me she was struck, and others on her team were too, by some comments made by one of the Israelis. Let's call him Yoram. 
Yoram's Israeli organization operates what Mary called large-scale residential care facilities - institutional housing, in simple terms - for Israeli children with special needs.
Mary said this was the kind of solution that isn't found in her country any more. The laws and the practices have changed there and almost everywhere else. 
Mary said to me: "We don't want to see large numbers of special needs children institutionalized and the practice has been done away with."
But Yoram, the Israeli, was speaking to Mary's group using terms like "integration within the community". Mary said this seemed odd coming from an organization that does the very opposite. Mary checked with her translator just to be sure that there wasn't a misunderstanding about what the Israelis do, as opposed to what they say.
But no, there was no translation error, said Mary. Yoram meant what he said. He and the people working in his organization see themselves operating large scale residential facilities, but they believe they are part of the process of integration within the community. Mary said she and her non-Israeli colleagues were left puzzled by this."
Well, that's no revelation to us. Almost every PR release from Aleh ("Israel’s Largest Network of Care for Children with Severe Multiple Disabilities") presents that same disconnect between words and deeds. But it may surprise some to learn that Israeli disability activists and advocacy organizations tolerate - or even embrace - Aleh. In fact, some of them happily partner with it.

Take for example Aleh's project Tikun Olam, much touted in its PR releases. It involves visits to schools throughout the country to enlighten children about people with disabilities. Towards that end, it has partnered [see this page] with several partners that purport to champion the needs of those with disabilities.

One, for instance, Makom Lekulam, boasts on its website:
The Non-profit Organization “A PLACE FOR ALL – promoting social inclusion” (R.A.) is working to promote a society in which people with disabilities will be full partners in the fabric of life, and will be able to exercise their rights and fulfill their potential in the manner of their choosing. The activities of the organization are led by a diverse group of people, including people with disabilities, and thus the organization serves as a model for inclusion and for creating “a place for all”.
The organization’s goal is to bring about a change in the society’s perception of people with disabilities through education and culture, to increase the society’s familiarity with the world of people with disabilities and to generate awareness of the potential of this group to contribute to society and to benefit from it.
We believe that by working in an integrated way with the three sides of the triangle: perceptual change in general society, empowerment of people with disabilitiesand support for their immediate environment (family, educators, etc.) we can create a society with room for growth and for mutual support and responsibility, a place for all.
The Hebrew version of Makom Lekulam's site [this page] - but not the English version - goes on to say this (my translation):
This youth leadership group works within the Ministry of Education with thousands of students by conveying educational programs dealing with accessibility and inclusion in the educational system and unmediated encounters also take place among influential groups in society, for instance, army officers, employers, service providers, community Rabbis, students of education and more. 
As you can see, in describing itself, this organization doesn't mention its partner Aleh. But the program appears to be funded generously, via Aleh. An April 2018 article ["Israeli 9th-graders learn life lessons from disabled peers"] says
ALEH’s plans to expand Tikkun Olam will bring the annual cost of the program to $1.85 million, to which the Israeli Ministry of Education will contribute $1 million annually for three years. The remaining $850,000 per year must be fundraised...
Aleh publicizes the above details whenever it mentions the program. Where does that kind of money go when it's volunteers that are conducting the sessions? Your guess is as good as mine.

All this deception impacts the public deeply, particularly foreign Jews with deep pockets and big hearts. This was demonstrated to me just a few days ago in a conversation I overheard. I was waiting for the elevator in the beautiful and bustling Shalva center in the Jerusalem suburb of Bayit Vegan. (My granddaughter who is not disabled attends an inclusive kindergarten there; I collect her once a week).

An elderly, vibrant American couple stood nearby chatting when I heard them refer to Aleh as "the other place", along with the name of its chief promoter and fundraiser, Doron Almog. Sadly, these supporters were under the misconception that Aleh is akin to Shalva which is a center providing activities and therapies to children and young adults with disabilities who live at home. 

My eavesdropping highlighted the uphill battle we face in persuading the public that true inclusion cannot abide institutionalization.

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