Plight of Blind Persons in Israel Will Be Discussed at Conference

Prior to leaving for Jerusalem yesterday to attend a three-day conference next week for the Jewish blind, Dr. Jacob Freid, executive director of the Jewish Braille Institute of America told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that “Israel has not yet accepted the normality of the blind person.” The first world conference of the Jewish blind will take place at the Jerusalem Hilton Hotel August 4-6. It will include some 360 persons from Israel, France, England and the U.S. Israeli President Ephraim Katzir will be honorary chairman.

Dr. Freid, who is partially sighted, said he hopes the conference will be the start of “a revolution in the status and opportunities of the blind in Israel so that they can be fully sustaining members of Israel’s economy and positively contributing citizens of the State of Israel.” Dr. Freid said there about 8000 Israelis who are considered legally blind by U.S. standards having five percent or less vision. Israeli standards are stricter, he said. To be declared legally blind in Israel one must have two-and-a-half percent or less vision. About half of the 8000 measure to this standard.

Dr. Freid said, “This is an abnormally large amount of blindness,” proportionately. The reasons, he said, Israel has so many blind persons is due to the poor medical care received by many Oriental Jews in their countries of origin and also the vision deterioration of many concentration camp survivors. In addition, there are about 100 blinded veterans of Israeli wars since 1948.

THE BLIND CAN BE PRODUCTIVE

The Jerusalem conference will attempt to demonstrate to Israelis that given the proper training and education these 8000 blind persons, “a sizeable percentage” of whom Dr. Freid said, are on welfare, can be “dues paying citizens of Israel.” About one-third of the conference participants will be blind persons and Dr. Freid said this will be their opportunity to “sit down with the top one hundred social workers in Israel” to discuss their problems.

According to Dr. Freid the problems of the Israeli blind are three-fold: Firstly, due to the financial stringency of the Israeli economy, the government cannot subsidize courses of study to train professionals in special education, rehabilitation and vocational guidance for the blind. Secondly, the blind in Israel don’t have an equal say in the agencies that affect them. Dr. Freid said he didn’t know of any blind persons who are board members of agencies for the blind. Thirdly, there is little acceptance of the blind in Israeli society, many of whom are “fixated at the level of switchboard operator.” Dr. Freid was primarily referring to a switchboard training program set up for the blind by Dr. Nissim Higel which Dr. Freid said was “successful” but at the same time unfortunate because “many of the blind can do much better than this level of employment.”

BARRED FROM MANY TOP POSITIONS

In Israel there is still a certain residual of the traditional belief that blindness “is a penalty or curse of God.” Dr. Freid said. Also, throughout the Middle East the status of the blind was “a quarter of a century behind the U.S. as far as training and opportunities.” The blind in Israel are now barred from government positions, foreign service, and the army where, Dr. Freid said, he felt the blind could serve in a back-of-the line capacity.” According to him, “the whole world is going through a revolution in its attitude toward the blind and there are glimmerings of it now in Israel.”

Attempts are being made for the universities in Israel to make available courses of study in rehabilitation and special education for the blind. Dr. Freid mentioned that former Brooklynite Lea Levavi, a staff member of the Jerusalem Post, is the first and only blind reporter in Israel. He also noted that Dr. Haim Blanc, professor in the social sciences at Hebrew University, and Dr. Albert Benjamin, psychology professor at Haifa University, are both blind. But Dr. Freid added, “The blind should not have to be super-brilliant to overcome their disabilities.”

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