People First, Disabilities Second: A New Generation of Israelis Learns to Care

By Guest Blogger Michal Rimon, Vice-Chair of Access Israel

In this day and age when our youth has the world at their fingertips through the Web, the arts, dance and fascinating hi-tech activities, it is especially challenging to find a way to convince them to step out of their comfort zone and put themselves in the shoes of a person with a disability.  And yet the Ruderman Foundation has joined Access Israel in finding a way to achieve this goal and motivate our youth to join us in making Israel a more accessible place.

We have to make this a place that doesn’t only settle for making the physical changes required to enable a person with disabilities to live life as everyone else, but we must also remove the stigmas and raise awareness of their needs.  But first we needed to help our youth understand that people with disabilities are first and foremost PEOPLE who happen to have a disability.

Working with the belief that in order to make a real effect a person has to be able to get to know disability first-hand, we launched the “Accessibility for All” program – first in Jerusalem and now in cities and towns across Israel. Many of the kids made excuses when we challenged them to put themselves in disabilities situations and meet real people with disabilities. “I can’t cover my eyes – I get nauseous,”  “I’ll never go in a wheel chair – it’s bad luck” or “You can’t really expect us to communicate with someone who’s retarded.”

But after introducing various disabilities in unique and unexpected ways – “blind” ice cream tasting, a wheelchair obstacle course and songs in sign language — the reactions soon change.

Still, after they begin to taste the frustrations of life with a disability, the most powerful response we get is always when the kids meet an individual with a cognitive disability who honestly and openly shares his life story with them. I won’t ever forget one student who was so moved he came up to the speaker and asked him if he could shake his hand. The speaker turned to me with a puzzled look and said, “I am used to kids making fun of me or threatening me, but no one ever asked to shake my hand. What should I say? I feel so important.”  The teenager told me, “It took so little to make him feel important. I can’t believe no one did it sooner – what can I do to help?”

And then the participants go back to their lives – to the Web, the arts and their hi-tech activities – except now, as part of the “Accessibility for All” program, they find ways of recruiting their world to help make a difference.  They’ve learned an important lesson, that all it takes sometimes is being aware of the needs and the abilities of people with disabilities and following your heart.

– Michal Rimon

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