Feb 3, 2016  By Jewish National Fund  Category: Special Needs,

JNF's Jewish Disabilities Action Month: 'Because awareness isn't enough'

While February is known as Jewish Disability Awareness Month, Jewish National Fund is rebranding it as an "action month" to ensure that everyone, regardless of individual challenges, is able to feel that they are supported and belong.

Nearly one in five people in the U.S. and one in eight in Israel live with a disability. JNF and its partners work daily to help children and adults in Israel who have physical, sensory, mental health, and intellectual disabilities enjoy a better quality of life.

JNF partners include Aleh Negev-Nahalat Eran, LOTEM-Making Nature Accessible, Red Mountain Therapeutic Riding Center at Kibbutz Grofit, and Special in Uniform, which integrates those with disabilities into the Israel Defense Forces. In addition, the new JNF Task Force on Disabilities has been created to bring partner organizations together to share resources and meet the needs of those with disabilities in Israel's north and south, where there are typically fewer services available.

Aleh Negev-Nahalat Eran, located in Ofakim near the Gaza border, cares for children and adults with medical conditions such as autism, cerebral palsy, and Down syndrome, as well as genetic disorders including Tay-Sachs, Canavan disease, and Rett syndrome. 
Photo: Robert Kerzner
Aleh Negev cares for children and adults
with severe disabilities. 

Children there attend school, participate in vocational programs, and enjoy activities such as swimming or touring the countryside. Over the years, Aleh Negev has become a center of excellence for people with disabilities in Israel, developing cutting-edge rehabilitative programs that are being studied and replicated worldwide.

"A strong society does not abandon its most vulnerable members," said Israel Defense Forces Major General (Res.) Doron Almog, chairman of the village. "It works tirelessly to enhance their quality of life and promote their inclusion within society, while teaching the values of responsibility and love toward every human being, regardless of level of ability or accomplishment. Aleh Negev-Nahalat Eran was founded on this commitment and nurtured on this love, and it is dedicated to spreading this message of social justice to create a better, more caring world."

LOTEM-Making Nature Accessible is the leading organization in Israel dedicated to making nature accessible to individuals with special needs. Serving close to 35,000 participants a year through accessible hikes, nature outings, and clubs, LOTEM literally opens the door of nature to all. LOTEM's target population includes children and adults who are blind and visually impaired, deaf and hearing impaired, physically and intellectually challenged, emotionally disturbed, and at risk of physical and emotional abuse.

"Nearly 20 percent of the population has some type of special need, and access to nature is not always possible for those with disabilities," Alisa Bodner, JNF-LOTEM liaison said. "Today, thanks to JNF, we have accessible trails in the north of Israel that allow people with special needs to enjoy the outdoors and join in the national pastime of hiking.”

Throughout Israel parks, walking paths, and other activities in nature are being built and upgraded so that people with special needs -- children, adolescents, families, IDF veterans, and many others -- can all enjoy the great outdoors.

The riders of Red Mountain Therapeutic Riding Center (RMTRC) at Kibbitz Grofit are children, youth, and adults who live in the southern region of Israel and are in need of therapeutic riding as a result of their developmental, neurological, emotional, behavioral, and/or learning challenges, as well as chronic illness and other conditions. Riders range in age from 3 to 86 years old with mild to severe disabilities. Presently, 200 children and adults from the Arava and Eilot regions participate in a weekly riding program.

"RMTRC performs magic in the remote Southern Arava," said Jill Kisbee, the center's riding project coordinator. "When supporting RMTRC, you know that you are helping people in a remote part of Israel reach their goals and to feel that life with a disability doesn’t have to disable them." 

An inclusive society is a better society: How Israel weaves the disabled into its fabric

Many of the participants are included in a scholarship program where RMTRC funds their therapy. JNF supports the program and enables children and adults to continue year after year. RMTRC riders also include individuals suffering from severe illnesses including cancer, genetic syndromes, multiple sclerosis; emotional and behavioral disorders; learning disabilities such as ADHD and ADD; Autism, PDD and other communication spectrum disorders.

Photo: Anne Taillandier
A Special in Uniform soldier tells his story. 
This year RMTRC was presented with an award by Access Israel for the years of service given to people with disabilities in the Eilat and Arava region. Shosh Sagor, who presented the honor, has only 10 percent of vision in one eye and is a member of a club for individuals with impaired vision who ride at RMTRC. "I was terrified at first to get on the horse, but now, thanks to RMTRC, I ride independently and can even run the horse," she said. 

Special in Uniform, JNF's newest partner, integrates young people with autism and other disabilities into the IDF and in turn into Israeli society. Since JNF entered into the Special in Uniform program in 2015, it has grown in size from 100 to 200 participants, and has a long wait list of individuals who wish to do their national service in the program.

Managed by IDF Lt. Colonel (Res.) Tiran Attia, Special in Uniform maintains a goal to recruit 1,000 enrolled participants in the next four years. 

"The IDF initially considered people with disabilities automatically exempt from mandatory service. With Special in Uniform, we have rejected the IDF’s dogmatic equation of disability with inability and have proven that all can take part and succeed," Attia said.

Throughout February, JNF's website, blog, and social-media channels will mark Jewish Disability Awareness Action Month. To learn more about our partners in Israel, please visit jnf.org/jdam2016.