In Israel, care for children and adults with special needs has come a long way.  Over the last 30 years, Israel has built some of the world’s most impressive facilities for the treatment and rehabilitation of the disabled and has developed cutting-edge technologies that enhance the quality of life for people with special needs around the globe.

The problem, however, is that our technological advancements for the benefit and support of the disabled seem to far exceed our growth and development as a society.

In 1988, Israel passed “Chok HaShiluv,” an integration law designed to provide special needs children with every opportunity afforded to their non-disabled peers and create integrated programming in educational settings and other streams of life.  Though this crucial initiative was passed 25 years ago, the Israeli public is yet to embrace its underlying principles.

There is still a heavy stigma surrounding the disabled in Israel, a societal mental block that makes it difficult for the average citizen to accept and provide opportunities for the special needs population within our borders. As such, it is difficult for this population to flourish, to truly reach their potentials.

To be fair, a number of Israeli programs and organizations have been established to care for special needs children, many with substantial volunteer initiatives.  However, not nearly enough of these programs or organizations stay true to “Chok HaShiluv” as it was intended – none of them provide programming that actually integrates disabled and non-disabled children within the same educational and/or recreational framework and challenges disabled children to grow while molding their non-disabled peers into compassionate individuals.

The unfortunate truth is that our society is still afraid of people with disabilities.  This is in large part due to the fact that too many of us have not been taught otherwise.  We don’t know how to approach the topic (or disabled individuals themselves), so we don’t even try.  As a result, the stigma grows stronger.

I believe that integration from a young age is the key to reversing this awful trend.  When disabled and non-disabled children are brought together in the school setting, the experience of learning together (really, just being together) lays the foundation for a lifetime of acceptance and understanding.  Very often, words aren’t even exchanged, but non-verbal interaction still makes a huge impact.

After school programs involving activities like art or swimming that are designed for both disabled and non-disabled children are prime examples of integration that greatly benefits all involved.  Disabled participants are given an opportunity to interact with children their own age, a stepping stone for social and emotional growth, and their non-disabled peers are placed in leadership roles that expand their minds and their hearts (not to mention the serious boost in self-confidence).  If only there were more organizations that offered such things.

At its core, ALEH’s Negev campus, ALEH Negev-Nahalat Eran, is a cutting-edge rehabilitative village designed to provide a continuum of residential care for children with severe disabilities as they grow from adolescents into young adults.  But it is also a beacon of social change.

The campus plays host to two nursery and kindergarten classes that provide a top-notch education to non-disabled children from neighboring communities and includes an integration model that stimulates positive awareness from an early age as part of its core curriculum.  These classes are filled to capacity and enrollment is already closed for the next school year because the parents are in awe of both the high educational standards and the truly unique integration programming.

Twice a week, a number of ALEH children join the class to learn and play together with their non-disabled peers.  And the children just can’t get enough of their special friends.  They run to open the doors for the ALEH kids, willingly share their toys with them, and hug them whenever they meet on the campus playground.

This outpouring of love, affection and support clearly demonstrates that our inclination as human beings is to be kind to those with special needs.  It is for this reason that we must make integration programming a priority, ensuring that all children have these kinds of positive interactions with the disabled community while they are still young and unbiased, before societal influences force them to fear everything (and anyone) they don’t understand.

We should be proud of the drastic improvements in our care for children and adults with special needs.  But in the end, our technological advancements won’t amount to much if we don’t progress as a society, if we don’t upgrade our humanity.