By David Cohen and Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi
Israel was a star of the recent UN Conference of States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Jean Judes, Executive Director of Beit Issie Shapiro (BIS), an Israeli non-profit that provides services for people with disabilities and advocates for a more inclusive society, was Israel’s special speaker, appearing on the platform before hundreds of leaders from around the world.
She spoke of the need to change perceptions of people with disabilities, and how BIS is trying to do it, and starting to succeed. Judes shared work from researchers who showed young children pictures of three kids – one who is typical, one who uses a wheelchair, and one who uses a hearing aid. They found that even the very young think, feel and act differently towards children with disabilities, and have negative perceptions towards them that are the basis stereotypes.
She shared other research demonstrating that the challenges for people with disabilities lies both in their impairments and in attitudes towards those impairments. To achieve an inclusive society, Jude explained, one has to look at the person with disabilities within the surrounding family, community and society. Judes’ examples should inspire us to try to examine our own attitudes, and those of our culture, and think about how we can systematically change them.
Of course, it’s easy to talk the talk and hard to walk the walk.
BIS is doing both. Judes told the delegates of BIS’ inclusive playground, where children who use wheelchairs can play with typical children. BIS also worked with Sesame Street’s Hebrew language version to add a Muppet who uses a wheelchair. Her name is Sivan and she is pretty, strong, clever and popular. Children watch this program and are influenced by it. BIS has even used Sivan to develop the workshops for children in the school system.
When Judes showed the delegates a Sesame Street TV clip about their park and Sivan, it was met by loud applause from hundreds of people, including leaders from countries that do not typically applaud Israel. This was a PR win for Israel. But more importantly, BIS’s work has led to solid positive change inside the country.
BIS is now consulting to 30 local councils about setting up parks and social programming. They are working on the critical component of developing awareness amongst policy makers, in addition to challenging stereotypes among citizens.
Recently, as a result of the model park project, and with the help of the Commission for Rights of People with Disabilities, Israel requires all new parks to be accessible. Additionally, BIS is helping countries including South Africa, Uruguay, and UK to establish similar parks.
Let’s hope that Sesame Street here in America will introduce such characters as Sivan. An early start to positive and inclusive thinking can help us build a better future for all of us.
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the President of RespectAbilityUSA.org and David Cohen is a Fellow there. RespectAbilityUSA.org's mission is helping the 57 million Americans with disabilities achieve the American dream. In RespectAbility’s version of that dream, Americans with disabilities are respected members of the workforce and wield significant political power.
Published by The Jewish Week.