SHEKEL’s emergency response to the challenges facing people with disabilities during the worst snowstorm Israel has seen in over 100 years, quickly received 180 ‘likes’ on its Facebook page and 39 ‘shares’. Loosely translated, this means: Israelis care, when made aware. Yet for all the week-long media coverage of the Capital’s snowstorm, I did not personally come across any items that focused on the dangers posed by widespread electricity cuts, internet crashes and malfunctioning telephone lines, to people with disabilities.
In fact, the record-breaking snowstorm that hit Israel’s Capital so hard, hit people with disabilities with particular vengeance. People with special needs are known to be the most vulnerable sector of society in times of emergency, and Jerusalem’s snowstorm proved no exception. As electricity cuts wreaked havoc throughout the country, a number of SHEKEL’s 80 apartments found themselves totally without heat or light for over 12 hours.
Five young wheelchair-bound women who share a SHEKEL apartment found themselves without electricity for 20 hours. The bitter cold posed an immediate threat to them, as people who are wheelchair-bound are unable to preserve their body heat through physical activity. The team of ‘SHEKEL – Community Services for People with Special Needs’ counselors took emergency measures, massaging the apartment residents once an hour in order to maintain their body heat. Another problem involved crucial electrical equipment. As Hadar Meroz, one of the apartment residents described the experience: “At some point the situation became very worrying as we were unable to recharge critical personal equipment that we need for daily living. It was also bitterly cold. But we felt a strong sense of togetherness and we coped. The SHEKEL counselors helped us and created a good atmosphere”.
Despite the complicated logistics involved, SHEKEL staff were able to answer the multiple needs of SHEKEL apartment residents throughout the city. Days later, they were still working in emergency mode, trudging by foot through snow to reach many of the apartments blocked by snow. Almost a week later, SHEKEL’s five apartments in East Jerusalem were still completely blocked in.
The lack of media attention to the dire situation faced by people with special needs during the four-day storm cannot fairly be attributed to lack of human concern. But it is probably a fair reflection of the pervasive invisibility that tends to surround this population sector in general. And it is invisibility that allows people with special needs to be ‘snowed out’ of the wider community. According to 2012 data provided by the Ministry of Social Affairs, over 80% of people with cognitive and intellectual disabilities live in institutions or institution-like hostels. Only 8% benefit from the same type of nurturing intimate home environments enjoyed by typical people in the wider community.
Directly impacting around 10,000 lives every year, SHEKEL believes every person deserves to live as an integral part of the wider community and benefit from an authentic home life, even if he or she is barely functional. Over the last 20 years SHEKEL has created viable alternatives to the options of living in institutions. SHEKEL realized that people with special needs need the same range of social activity, stimuli and opportunities that typical people need in order to build a meaningful and fulfilling life.
At SHEKEL a total of 600 people are empowered through challenging and meaningful work either through SHEKEL’s in-house employment options, which require a broad spectrum of skills and capabilities, or through Israel’s private business and public sectors, with SHEKEL supervision. But as in the typical world, life is about more than just work and SHEKEL residents and employees can benefit from SHEKEL College where some 90 enrichment and vocational courses are enjoyed by 1,000 people with special needs from all over Jerusalem. Specialized cultural programs also bring people with special needs together with typical people for collaboration on serious art projects.
At the recent 2013 General Assembly held in Jerusalem, Eric Rosenthal, founder of Disability Rights International and recipient of the 2013 Bronfman Prize, spoke of the developmental need for all children to grow up in real families. He expressed his disappointment over the profusion of child institutions and institution-like orphanages for children with special needs in Israel today. SHEKEL could not agree more and proactively addresses this problem by providing beneficial afternoon school programs to 12 special needs schools in Jerusalem. The programs serve to extend the school day from 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm, allowing parents to keep their special needs children at home while continuing to work and take care of their other children. This is often a decisive factor in the parents’ decision to keep their children at home rather than sending them to an institution.
SHEKEL is responsible for many more programs designed to ensure people with disabilities the opportunities they need to advance and realize their potential, in terms of independence, safety, personal growth, and contribution to the wider community. Five years ago the SHEKEL Family Treatment Center was established to answer the glaring therapeutic and social and sexual educational needs for people with special needs, who are four times more likely to suffer physical, sexual, or emotional abuse than typical people. SHEKEL created and continues to operate the first Child Development Center in East Jerusalem for Arabic speaking children who are not adequately served in Hebrew-speaking Centers due to language and cultural barriers.
A leader in the area of accessibility, SHEKEL recently masterminded and is now implementing a comprehensive accessibility plan for the Old City of Jerusalem. It also set new international standards for physical and cognitive accessibility in Jerusalem’s light rail system, which is currently the most accessible transport system of its kind in the world.
But at the very heart of SHEKEL’s ethos is the empowerment of each individual, by focusing on their personal abilities, and ensuring accessibility of opportunity at every level and in every facet of life.
At a recent 50th birthday party, surrounded by close friends, Itzik Borkas talked with pride about his home life and his fulfilling work in a local restaurant. Describing the SHEKEL apartment he shares with his dear friends and flat-mates, Itzik said simply: “My home is a place where I am accepted with warmth and love. The most important thing SHEKEL taught me is independence.”
Sharon Simmer is the Director of Resource Development and Communications at SHEKEL-Community Services for People with Special Needs. If you share SHEKEL’s vision of non-institutionalization and inclusion of peoples with special needs within the community you can refer to the SHEKEL website or Facebook- “SHEKEL-Community Services for People with Special Needs.” You can also contact Sharon at firstname.lastname@example.org.