JERUSALEM (JTA) — As revolution sweeps across the Middle East at a dizzying pace, cries for freedom, equality and an improved standard of living ring out, touching millions around the world and bringing hope to millions more. Finally their voices are being heard, progress is being made.
Still, an important segment of the population goes unheard, as it cannot participate in high-profile protests or even voice its grievances and concerns.
The mentally and physically disabled are underrepresented throughout the Middle East, and there are few signs of this changing soon. Progress is at a standstill.
Everywhere, that is, except for Israel.
Over the last few years, Israel has launched a quiet revolution of its own. Residential and treatment centers for the disabled, once funded and run exclusively by private individuals and initiatives, now have garnered government funding, support and participation. Influential Israeli corporations in the fields of technology, defense and telecommunications are making projects to support the disabled population a priority, contributing significant amounts of time and money to the cause.
In addition, public discourse on equal access for the disabled has set in motion a heroic effort by the management of thousands of eateries, malls, schools, office buildings and theaters to ensure that their facilities are accessible to everyone. And the discussion extends well beyond government offices, corporate boardrooms and activism meetings.
A recent conference in Jerusalem gathered religious leaders, teachers and celebrated thinkers to publicly address the need to include the disabled in religious life. In an effort to “ground” their soldiers, institutions like the Israel Defense Forces, Mossad and Shin Bet all have made assisting the disabled a crucial part of the training process for advanced officers.
What brought about these dramatic changes?
I believe the key has been a national re-evaluation of life and what makes it worth living. Israel has transitioned from its obsession with identifying one’s abilities — due, in part, to a history fraught with trials, persecution and an ongoing struggle for survival — to a deeper commitment to the value of human life. Instead of gauging one’s worth according to his or her military profile, we have come to the realization that every human life should be treasured, even those who will never contribute to society. An example from my own life should help clarify the point.
Many of the children in my care suffer from severe disabilities as a result of complications during childbirth. Extreme prematurity, prolonged lack of oxygen and other traumas have left these children in a very difficult state. They are the babies that you don’t normally hear about. They aren’t the ones that "passed away too soon" or the miracle children celebrated far and wide. They are born injured and their limitations are extreme. They will never speak, write or walk on their own. They will never finish a degree or hold a steady job — they are completely dependent on our care.
There was a time when families were so ashamed of such children that they would leave them at our doorstep and disappear, sometimes even fleeing the country. But today, this is unheard of in Israel. The families of disabled children and the communities in which they live see a soul, like yours or mine, trapped in a damaged body — not something to be ashamed of but rather someone who needs more love and support. This is the principle upon which our silent revolution continues to thrive.
As Maj.-Gen. (res.) Doron Almog, one of the most vocal champions of the disabled population in Israel, has often said, "Our generation will be judged by the way we treat the weakest members of society."
Not surprisingly, the revolution has benefited all who embrace it on many levels. When one spends less time seeking out those who can advance his own position and more time seeking out opportunities to give of himself, life becomes more rewarding and truly worth living. As an entrepreneur who supports our work recently said, “I have never seen such an investment in a project that exhibits no clear results for a bottom line, and yet the results for those involved are truly invaluable.”
While the revolution marches on, progressing like previously unimagined, Israel still has one more hurdle to overcome. We must find our voice and share our story with the rest of the Middle East, with the world. In short, the revolution can no longer move forward in silence.
Our successes must be shared and our achievements must be applauded, not just to give us our due for a job well done, but to allow those who will never have a voice to finally be heard.
(Shlomit Grayevsky is the founding director of ALEH Jerusalem and assistant director general of ALEH, Israel’s largest network of residential facilities for children with severe physical and cognitive disabilities.)