The focus on the basic right of inclusion for people with disabilities in our communities has naturally made major inroads in areas such as employment, schools, places of worship and elsewhere. While significant challenges remain to make our society and communities more inclusive, much headway has been made.
Still, it behooves us to carefully examine the quality of inclusion and not just the quantity. Do workers with disabilities receive the same social benefits in the workplace as their peers? Do students with disabilities who are included in regular classes truly feel a part of the social milieu of their peers? Do our houses of worship merely serve as places of gathering or prayer, or do their members with disabilities enjoy the same social benefits as others?
I would not wish to generalize, but anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that the glass is more than half empty. Colleagues at work often meet after hours, go for a drink, share social experiences. Too often, their colleagues with disabilities, particularly those with developmental disabilities, may be invited to the occasional wedding, but not much else. Schools may provide academic studies, but too often students with intellectual disabilities who are included in regular classes find themselves the target of isolation, and often worse.
Our organization, Israel Elwyn, in partnership with Israel’s Ministries of Social Affairs and Social Services and of Education, the National Insurance Institute, Ashalim-JDC and local governments, has undertaken a pilot program known as “Reshet” (“network” in Hebrew) to reach out to and support young people with disabilities in inclusive high schools and help prepare them for the world of adulthood. This pilot project, currently operating in the south of Israel, provides these young people with the tools to prepare them for their first military call-up, for employment and for the world of continuing academic studies. No less important, the project has introduced weekly social clubs where these young people meet with others who also have disabilities, often a rare experience for them. The enthusiastic response of these youth to the social experiences they enjoy with their peers caused me to wonder: “how inclusive is this experience”?
The answer is not a clear one, but the need is nonetheless compelling. While not all the participants in the Reshet program express feelings of social isolation at school, quite a few have. Let’s hear two of them in their own voices:
Naor, when asked about socializing in school, responded “My social situation before I joined Reshet was not good. I didn’t know anyone and always sat by myself at school and at home played with my computer. Even now, I feel like I go to school just to pass the time. I feel bad about this, and don’t really have anyone I can call my friends. In the Reshet program, I feel better socially, people listen to one another, want to get to know each other and there aren’t any levels of social status.”
Dror reports: “In school, I don’t have any friends. There are maybe two or three people who don’t ignore my existence, but even with them, they usually laugh at or curse [me]. Students are difficult, loud and disrespectful. In Reshet, I have finally found a good place, where I can express myself and where we can laugh together about everyday things and not where people laugh at each other. I can’t wait for the time each week where we get together and sometimes we arrange to meet in the afternoon outside the program – something which you can’t take for granted.”
Inclusion needs to be about more than just functional involvement in the activities of society. It must be about how we all reach out and include people in every aspect of our lives. The students in the Reshet program are learning critical socialization skills that will, it is hoped, serve them when they move onto adulthood. But as with all aspects of inclusion, the disability lies not within the individual, but within our society and our communities. I encourage us all to make greater efforts to make inclusion not just a slogan, but a comprehensive way of life.
David B. Marcu is the CEO of Israel Elwyn, an organization that provides support services for children and adults with disabilities and their families. He is a past president of the International Association of Jewish Vocational Services, and is a member of the board of directors of the Israel Council for Social Welfare and the professional advisory committee for youth and disabilities of “Tevet”, the employment subsidiary of the JDC.