Listen up, Bibi, Yair, Shai, and Naftali. Autism isn’t the only disability in need of attention. Will 2013 be the year that the Israeli government puts the needs of all people with disabilities front and center - men, women, children, and their families - who deal with disability; cognitive, physical, emotional, each and every day?
Will new government officials and the funding bodies they represent, the Ministries of Finance, Education, Welfare and Health, be willing to admit that Autism is only one in a long list of disabilities in need of proper attention?
Autism has become the label of the moment - the cause célèbre, if you will - in the world of disability, pushing aside the needs of all people, children in particular, with other developmental disabilities. It’s an inequity that has caused a growing need in many an overburdened municipality such as Jerusalem, a city that lacks the funds to properly handle educating and supporting the growing numbers of children diagnosed with a range of learning issues that include Autism spectrum disorder, as well as other developmental challenges. That means quality programs, including school, after school, and day camps during longer vacation periods for all children and teens.
Parents have proved to be a powerful force in the world of Autism, in Israel, as in the rest of the world, lobbying, demanding and receiving specialized classrooms within general education schools as well as longer school days, and a school vacation schedule that is much more comprehensive year-round than children with cognitive disabilities, severe learning problems, and emotional/behavioral issues receive.
Furthermore, many of the specialized programs for students with Autism are held in general education facilities, giving those children opportunities for inclusion alongside their typical peers that is rarely offered to children with cognitive and physical disabilities.
Social services programs such as the National Welfare Institute, Bituach Leumi, which assesses and offers monthly stipends to children with known and identified labels, gives the full 100% of the monthly allotment allowed to children with Autism, regardless of their independent living skills and overall cognitive issues, compared to their peers with known cognitive labels, such as Down syndrome, for example, who generally receive 50% of the full monthly grant.
Children with disabilities that are not as easy to label often receive nothing, even though they may be enrolled in special education schools and have needs are no less complicated. Without that all important access to government funds that parents and caregivers use for therapies and equipment not covered by government health services, most are left high and dry unless their families have the extra funds on hand - most don’t.
They were elected to lead
Reassessing how government agencies divvy up people with disabilities in order to provide support services is critical if all are to have equal access to the help they need. Currently, the three available designations, Autism, cognitive disability and rehabilitation (an all-inclusive label that truly means nothing), create barriers that limit access to a range of programs both social, educational and vocational, for adults as well as children.
Two weeks before the recent election, Prime Minister Netanyahu said that his government would put together a "special plan" for dealing with people with Autism. Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, made Autism funding a critical part of the deal they cut before entering the coalition, something that many would describe as sector-based legislation, an old-style way of doing politics that many would like to see ended.
While it’s great to see attention paid, and monies apportioned, why just Autism? What about the thousands of Israeli adults and children with other disabilities? Since when did their needs become any less important than others, and what kind of message are we sending to them and their families, as well as the greater society, who still needs to be encouraged to include and not to fear people with disabilities?
No parent struggling with disability would argue the need for school services, quality afterschool activities and appropriate vacation programs but it is unclear why so much has been given to one population in need.
It is well known that a number of our governmental leaders have family members with disabilities. We applaud those who’ve talked about it honestly and we respect those who’ve chosen to protect their family members. But the time has come to act.
We demand that Israeli leaders put the needs of all Israeli citizens with disabilities on their platforms. A leadership opportunity exists for that person and party who stands up and makes the issue their own, encouraging the removal of stigmas and barriers as well as finding the necessary funds to help all people with disabilities. They were elected to lead - morally and legislatively - and not shy away from difficult issues such as disabilities. They were elected to take a stand, to inspire and to lead by example - the best and only way to make a difference.
Ministers, set an example. Show that you care about ALL people with disabilities. Show that you believe in their rights to excellent services and to a life lived with dignity.
It’s time. It’s time for all Israeli leaders to publicly and unequivocally pledge their commitment to all Israelis, and to include them in the greater society. Not because we pity them but because they have equal and inalienable rights, regardless of difference.
A leadership that is able to harness the energy of the government, non-profit sector and public to ensure fairness of resource distribution and opportunities will make Israel a better place for all, and a light unto nations around the world - imagine that.
Beth Steinberg and Miriam Avraham are the founders of Shutaf Inclusion Programs in Jerusalem — year-round activities for children and teens with special needs, ages 6 to 21