The annual observance of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, December 3rd was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly resolution in 1992.
In 2006, the UN adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. More than 90 countries signed the act, committing to increase social inclusion, work and employment.
What are the results over a decade later? Different countries, different cultures, different regions each approach how to meet the needs of those with disabilities in their own way.
Since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, there has been an intensive effort to develop a set of laws for people with disabilities. However, during the first 67 years, the Israeli Knesset (parliament) failed to set an integrative and consistent disability policy. Former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir had a granddaughter born with Down syndrome. She never publicly acknowledged the child, and, in fact, encouraged her children to place the granddaughter in a state institution, which was common practice at the time. Yet in her autobiography, Meir talked about her dream that one day Israelis with disabilities would be part of the general Jewish community.
If Meir were still alive, she would be able to see that dream come true with the Special in Uniform program —a partnership between the IDF, the Israeli Ministry of Social Services and the Jewish National Fund (JNF-USA) that works to integrate youths with disabilities into regular units into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and ultimately into Israeli society. She would be proud to know that of the 90 countries signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities act, Israel is the only one to include people with disabilities in its army and across its society.
The reason for this success is that in Israel, beyond its military duty to ensure Israel’s security, the army is also plays an important social role. It is a melting pot that brings together all sectors of Israeli society. The army is a gateway for young people of all backgrounds to successfully integrate into society and the work force.
The story of Ben Levi shows how this approach is so successful. Oxygen was cut off from Levi’s brain when he was born two months early, leading to his development of cerebral palsy. But physical limitations did not hold him back from attending high school and graduating with honors, after which point he pursued his dream to serve in the IDF through the Special in Uniform program Levi was the program’s first-ever soldier with cerebral palsy.
During his three years is service, Levi was a rising star at his base, the IDF National Search and Rescue Unit, under the Home Front Command–a highly skilled force trained to execute special search and rescue missions, The unit is comprised primarily of reservists who are always on call, with prepared kits to enable immediate departure.
Every morning Levi and his friends from Special in Uniform arrived to the base working in a warehouse to help to refresh and prepare the emergency kits or the unit and he received award for excellence from his commanders for his ability to get big things done.
When Levi finished his army service and started to look for a job in Israel, the skills that he gained in the army were assets that helped him to find job. He is working as court security officer in the Israeli Supreme Court Building.
Since JNF partnered with the Special in Uniform program, it has grown in size from 50 to 300 participants, with a long waiting list. The charismatic and passionate leaders of the program have a big vision for the program: to quickly ramp up to 1,000 enrolled participants over the next four years.
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Special in Uniform is changing the fabric of Israeli society by helping create a more caring and inclusive country and promoting Inclusion of people with disabilities in the IDF on a national level.
Yossi Kahana, a native-born Israeli, is the director of Jewish National Fund’s Task Force on Disabilities, an umbrella and coordinating body for the various JNF programs and partners for people with disabilities in Israel.