Ramat Gan, Israel — A lot of college students dread introductory courses. Not so the students taking Bar-Ilan University’s Introduction to Sociology, Empowerment and Authority, part of the Otzmot empowerment program.
The program offers three stages of inclusion in the academic world for students with intellectual disability.
When Dr. Shoshana Nissim, an Otzmot lecturer, asked her Stage 1 students what kinds of people have “charismatic authority,” one student replied “leaders” while another said “Moshe Rabaynu,” the biblical Moses.
Nissim then launched into a lively discussion on legal authority, from the police to the Knesset, and a reference to Karl Marx.
“What economic model did Karl Marx discuss?” Nissim asked.
“Capitalism,” Rivka, one of the class’ most vivacious students, responded.
Otzmot’s courses, which serve adults with mild intellectual disability, provide college-level courses adapted to their needs. The most academically capable students in the program can earn a bachelor’s degree.
Prof. Hefziba Batya Lifshitz established Otzmot (“strength” in Hebrew) in 2012, based on her work in what is known as compensation age theory: that chronological age plays an important role in determining the cognitive ability of individuals with intellectual disability, beyond their mental age. Over the years the program, which initially drew skepticism from some quarters in academia, has demonstrated the ability of people with mild intellectual disability to not only learn but thrive at a university.
According to Lifshitz’s research, in their later years, people with intellectual disability, including Down syndrome, experience “compensation” for the developmental delays they experienced in their early years, and their intelligence grows and develops until their mid-40s.
Lifshitz also initiated and heads the university’s master’s program in intellectual disability (as opposed to the broader developmental disability), which is believed to be the only such program in the world. Otzmot is an integral part of the MA program.
Otzmot students enrolled in Stage 1 take several academic courses at the Churgin School of Education: introduction to psychology, introduction to sociology, self-advocacy, library and computers.
They are taught by some of the MA program’s typical students, who have received training in adapting regular university courses for intellectually disabled adults.
In the Stage 2 track, students with intellectual disability are integrated with typical students in a BA research seminar and conduct research with them.
Stage 3 leads to a bachelor’s degree. Six of the highest achieving students with mild intellectual disability are fully integrated into undergraduate courses with a great deal of support from the program. Based on their achievements, the university decided to register them as regular students (they initially audited classes), and they are expected to earn their degree within two years.
Lifshitz said Otzmot’s goals are multifaceted: to educate and enrich the lives of adults with intellectual disabilities; to promote their social integration in the university by being with typical students in and out of class; to strengthen their self-esteem and confidence; and to educate the public about the learning potential of adults with intellectual disabilities on college campuses and in society as a whole.
As it stands now, there are very few academic options for young adults with Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities — sheltered workshops or simple jobs are the norm — because society doesn’t believe they have the capacity to learn once they are no longer adolescents.
“Our studies show that young adults with and without ID have the same intelligence trajectories from adolescence into adulthood,” Lifshitz said, pointing to one of her studies displayed on her computer screen.
Although young adults with intellectual disability have a lower IQ than their non-disabled peers, the memory, language skills and other cognitive skills of both populations improve at a similar pace in adulthood, thanks to maturity, education, life experience and cognitive reserve.
That has certainly been the case in the Otzmot program’s Stage 3 track.
In a new study, Lifshitz and Dr. Chaya Aminadav, a psychologist and former head of the Disability Division in the Welfare Ministry, found the participants’ overall IQ scores increased as much as 15 points, and their verbal IQ reached into the 90s — in the “normal” range — during their time in the program.
“The conclusion is that academic learning contributes to cognition in adults with intellectual disabilities,” Lifshitz said.
Aminadav said the Otzmot students have integrated “very well” into university life.
“You can see that their self-esteem is much higher. You see it in how they carry themselves, in their body language. They stand up straighter. They are more steady. They’re not afraid to be on a university campus. Suddenly they’re insiders, not outsiders,” Aminadav said.
Ada Oz, director of ATID, the Israel Association for Down Syndrome, first envisioned a program like Otzmot many years ago. The fact that it exists is a dream come true, she said.
“The people who meet the students realize that everyone can learn, even if they’re not earning a degree.”
And she has seen the students — some of whom she has known for decades — blossom.
“They’re always telling stories about what they’re learning and their interactions with other students on campus. They’ve grown so much,” Oz said.
In the Stage 3 classroom, Otzmot’s six BA students were sitting in front of laptops, learning how to write for academia.
Ruti, a 41-year-old BA student with Down syndrome, discussed the Code of Hammurabi and the fact that there were laws before the Torah was written.
Since enrolling at the university, Ruti said, “I have been able to deliver divrei Torah” — commentary on the week’s Torah portion — “at the Shabbat table. The courses I’m taking are on a high level.”
Back in the Stage 1 classroom, Tikvah, who also has Down syndrome, said studying at Bar-Ilan has boosted her self-confidence.
“I like learning here because I’m learning different things about myself and the country around me. I have faith. I have motivation. And I have strength. I’ve learned not to give up,” she said, “even though sometimes I want to.”