New law offers new horizon for people with disabilities

Legislation could transform worlds of people with special needs and their families, providing boosts for housing, transportation, care, community services

Young people within the Kinneret housing project participate in a practical work experience session. August 2022 (courtesy Kinneret Ltd.)
Young people within the Kinneret housing project participate in a practical work experience session. August 2022 (courtesy Kinneret Ltd.)

Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who was in tears in May during a cabinet discussion of his bill to integrate people with disabilities into society by tackling issues such as housing and transportation, has since said that passing the law has been his greatest achievement.

For everyone in the field, recognizing the rights of disabled people in law is a crucial step in acknowledging a population that sometimes feels it is hidden from view and forgotten.

The official Social Services Law for People with Disabilities promises to change the legal rights that the state guarantees to those with special needs. It commits to offering independent living in the community, with life-skills training and access to therapies. While focusing on people with mental illness, autism, or vision and/or hearing impairments, the law is likely to have a lasting impact on the treatment of all those with disabilities.

Some NIS 2 billion ($617 million) has been allocated to fund implementation of the plan. Its biggest challenge will be to provide services that can easily reach those who need them. Working teams are being put together by the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services to focus on delivery and practical implementation, and to identify any supporting regulations.

Planners will also need to grapple with housing market challenges — finding suitable, affordable spaces for groups of those with disabilities to live together, based in a community they can be a part of.

Websites like Kol Zchut that summarize rights for those with special needs are as comprehensive as possible, but only illustrate how complex the system currently is. Nonprofit organizations such as Kesher and Shekel have been working over a long period of time to deliver practical support. But there is general acknowledgment that many people still live in inappropriate settings or fail to access their rights.

“Yedidya” (he preferred not to use his real name) is a smart, articulate, 21-year-old with autism who is aware of what he wants from life and the challenges he faces. He lives at home with his parents while volunteering in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in a special program for those with autism.

“I don’t want to stay at home forever. I’d be happy to be in an apartment with other boys who are similar to me, where there’s someone to help us sometimes and who can get us started with things like shopping and budgeting. I don’t need someone there all the time. But I also want a community where I can walk down the street and see people and chat to them, and get to know my neighbors, and go to activities that are happening locally,” he told The Times of Israel.

It sounds straightforward but there have been many complications. His mother “Dana” (also not her real name) said: “I’ve been working for the last few years with different organizations to try to put together a group of young people and it is really difficult. And then it’s even harder to find a place where the group can integrate into the community in a meaningful way.”

“Yedidya wants a social life. He wants to be like his siblings. They go out, his sisters have boyfriends. He wants to feel that he can also do those things. I don’t know how that happens in cities or neighborhoods that are not like kibbutzim. How do people like my son get beyond the stage of just getting some waves of hello to actually feel part of the community? That feeling of being an outsider, being lonely, is what makes him low on a much deeper level,” she told The Times of Israel.

Very often, determined parents who cannot find a suitable place for their child to live independently have committed themselves to creating projects that can offer solutions for themselves and for other people with disabilities.

Creating a community

Kfar Idud in Netanya was set up in 1988 by a group of parents who could not find a suitable permanent home for their adult children with special needs. The result is a small village of red-roofed apartments adjacent to the coastal highway – 168 in total – that are owned by the residents’ families.

Kfar Idud village for people with special needs, Netanya, August 2022 (Eliana Wolfson)

The land surrounding the apartments and the public buildings within the community belong to the Committee of Friends organization, which each family joins when becoming a member of the community. The Committee manages Kfar Idud under the supervision of the Rehabilitation Department of the Ministry of Welfare, which co-finances daily management and provides professional guidance.

Kfar Idud offers 24/7 support to 150 residents, now aged from 21 to 60. Its members have a variety of disabilities, and issues related to organic brain damage. The community provides them with meals, laundry, and weekly house cleaning, while residents are taught regular tasks such as keeping their apartments tidy. Everyone works, at an individually appropriate level, on campus, in services for the community, in a plant nursery that is open to the public, or in jobs outside of the village. The community also provides leisure activities such as drama, choir, music appreciation, art, handicrafts, looking after animals, lectures, sports groups, and hiking.

Like similar places scattered across Israel, the biggest challenge is the inability to open membership to new residents as spaces are rare.

Over time, other organizations have developed living spaces — hostels and apartments — for people with both mental and physical disabilities. The homes are like any other living space; the difference is that they have support and involvement from care assistants, social workers, and therapists, according to the needs of those living there. These projects have taken some of the pressure off parents to create their own, but they believe however fast they try to expand, many people with special needs currently get stuck in the family home, without the resources to live more independently.

Kinneret Ltd. is a company that started in Tiberias in 1998 that delivers a mixture of supported living accommodations as individual hostels and apartments across Israel. Some facilities have 24/7 support for members. Others offer basic life skills training and a couple of hours of general support each day. Some 750 children and adults currently live in the homes they run.

Dalit Levi (courtesy Kinneret Ltd.)

Dalit Levi, vice president of the nonprofit company, told The Times of Israel, “We always have a waiting list, but we are still growing. We are always trying to bring the pieces together for each new home we create. It’s difficult: parents have many different wants and needs. The potential members also have wants and needs they may not always be able to articulate. And sometimes they have behaviors that are difficult for us to accommodate within a community.”

Maayan Michaelson, who heads the organization’s Derech Eretz community, added, “We set out to create a home for life (Bayit La’Chaim) where our members can live all of their lives. And that is a complicated process.”

Connectivity to the world beyond the supported accommodation is also a very important factor in establishing homes. “We set out to create not just houses but communities, and communities that become part of the wider community, which is why a number of our homes are on kibbutzim or in smaller villages. It can take years to have the discussions to set up a new home. But when we do, and the community embraces the initiative, they find that even though they give a lot, they get much more back from the people with special needs who live among them,” said Levi.

Hostel for those with special needs provided by Kinneret Ltd. at Kfar Kisch in the Galilee. (courtesy Kinneret Ltd)

Levi also acknowledges the “complex path” that parents currently have to navigate, with many agencies involved in delivering the appropriate services to each person.

“There is often a reluctance from parents to move their child to a setting outside the home. If they are not in an established framework, it can be very difficult to find employment and to have a social life,” she said. “Often parents’ expectations for their children can be low. We watch the confidence and the independence of those in our care grow, often way beyond what their parents ever thought was possible.”

The interior of a hostel in Kfar Kisch for those with special needs provided by Kinneret Ltd. (Courtesy)

She hopes the new legislation will help more people living with disabilities “find appropriate settings” and give parents a better understanding of “what help is available for their children and to co-ordinate its delivery, at a price that everyone can afford.”

Integrating people living with disabilities into society

According to 2021 statistic estimates, there are currently about 1.5 million Israelis living with disabilities, or nearly 20% of the population of nine million. This includes children and older people, but also more than 700,000 people of working age. This group is less likely to be employed, less likely to be highly educated, and more likely to be paid substantially less when they do find employment than those without disabilities.

Recognizing the status of those with disabilities in law “means they cannot be forgotten,” Lavi said. “And I understand that the government wants to work in partnership with those of us in the field.”

At a conference last month to discuss the new law at the Shalva National Center in Jerusalem, Lapid and Welfare and Social Affairs Minister Meir Cohen laid out their vision for an audience that included people with disabilities and special needs, their families, and disability professionals.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid at a ceremony at the Shalva center for children with special needs in Jerusalem on July 25, 2022. (Yoav Dudkevitch)

“All disabilities are different. However, they also have something in common: The need for help… We passed this law so that people with disabilities and their families will not need to do everything for themselves… The State of Israel is telling people with disabilities and their families: ‘We are not done. We are dealing with this together.'”

Lapid is a father to a child on the spectrum — Yael — and has often noted some of the hardships and blessings involved in raising a child with autism. He specifically lamented “the physical and emotional pain felt by parents, the fact that Yael can’t speak and tell her parents she loves them.”

In the cabinet discussion in May, the emotional then-foreign minister told other ministers that passing the law was “the most important thing you’ll ever do.”

Prime Minister Yair Lapid with participants at a professional conference to present the new disability law, at the Shalva National Center in Jerusalem, July 25, 2022. (Haim Zah/GPO)

Cohen, who has worked previously on initiatives and bills to address issues affecting those with disabilities, said, “This is a historic moment for the community of people with disabilities and their families.

“No longer are they ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ Within a short time, people with disabilities will live among us and be inseparable from us. Israel is taking its place among the most advanced countries in integrating people with disabilities into the community,” said the minister.

Those who have children with special needs in their late teens in particular are watching, waiting, and hoping for the changes the new legislation will bring.

“Vered” (not her real name) has a 17-year-old son with autism. She expects that he will finish his special education high school at 21 and will need some independence.

“It’s not in anyone’s interests that he should stay at home,” she told The Times of Israel. “But he has some difficult behavioral issues and I already know it won’t be easy to find a setting to cater to his needs. He has to become independent and I believe, with the right support, he can make a lot of progress. But I’m going to need help to make that happen.”

It will take time to deliver meaningful change. But there is a shared view that this legislation may well be the most significant legacy of the last government, a promise to people with disabilities that they have a place.

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