Our daughter Hallel is 7-years-old. She is gorgeous — smart, creative and friendly with a great sense of humour and a magnetic personality. She radiates warmth and care to everyone she encounters.  Like most little girls her age Hallel loves singing and dancing, reading and writing, piano lessons and playing with her friends in our local park.

By the way, she also has Down Syndrome.

She isn’t Down Syndrome.

She is Hallel.

Next week, Hallel starts first grade. In a “regular” school. In a “regular” classroom, with her “typical” classmates. From the moment she was mainstreamed in our “regular” local neighborhood kindergarten in Jerusalem, she flourished, learning and growing just like all the other kids in her class — as an equal. A “normative” environment provides Hallel with “normative” models of language, behaviour, learning and social interaction to imitate and the opportunity to learn how to navigate our world and thrive in it. She doesn’t feel “different” or “special.” She just feels included and that she belongs. And her classmates? They don’t see Hallel as “different.” Their families and her teachers? They tell us that they received a priceless gift — a real life understanding of what inclusion and acceptance can and should mean in our society and that each and every one of us has their own unique ability to contribute to our world.151123_115302_COLLAGE-1

Until she was 4, Hallel attended daycare and kindergartens for children with disabilities. The “Special Education” system is an amazing, supportive and caring bubble but it is separate and detached from our world. There was limited expectation, a lack of vision for Hallel’s potential, her ability to be a part of society and contribute to it. “Special Education” offers tremendous support to parents — long school days, on site therapy (speech, occupational, physiotherapy, music, art and more), specialist staff and a school bus — all of which enable family life to go on “as normal.” But it doesn’t enable Hallel to have a “normal” life. It doesn’t allow Hallel to be an integral part of her community. Most of all, it denies her the opportunity to create real and lasting friendships with the kids in her neighborhood, to be one of them and to live and experience life’s journey together with them.

Leaving the supportive bubble takes enormous courage, investment of time and unfortunately, financial resources as well as the strength and will to fight.  Fighting for the right to be a part of society. Fighting the system and institutions that don’t want to change and aren’t motivated to accommodate, even if it’s in their best interest and that of the child. Fighting a world that has no desire to include, that is afraid of difference, that doesn’t “get” it.
DSC_0125Campaign photos courtesy of Nechama Orah Photography; Make up by Makeup by Ester Boutique School

But how can the world “get it” when we never get the chance to encounter difference. We hardly even see people with disabilities – not on television or in adverts, not in our newspapers, let alone in kindergarden or at school or at work, or in our day to day lives.

Last week Hallel took part in Select Fashion and Totto bags’ “Back to School” ad campaign  (yes among her many talents she is also an experienced professional model!). The campaign is one of  NGO Beyachad’s groundbreaking inclusion initiatives that aims to normalize inclusion of people with disabilities through their visibility in advertising. Beyachad: Empowering Inclusion in Israel works day in day out to change the paradigm for people with disabilities in Israel, transforming our society for the good of all through advocacy, education, awareness and lobbying.

A regular photo shoot for a regular “Back to School” campaign. Two of the four models happen to have a disability. Nothing special, just realizing Beyachad’s vision of what “normal” should and can be. Children of all abilities, going back to school. Together. For all to see.

Hallel has taught me, and all her friends, that difference in our lives is natural and wonderful and that acceptance and inclusion makes our world a better place for everyone.

Because when it comes down to it, we are all different – aren’t we?

And all we really want is to belong, be accepted and be able to make our contribution.

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