I recently completed what I believe was around my 30th trip to Israel. It was a remarkable time to visit with disability organizations and leaders. Thus, I wanted to share some observations:
- EMPLOYMENT AND INTEGRATION: There is no nation on earth that has all the answers on these issues. However, I saw some exciting developments on this front:
- The Israeli Electric Company (IEC) is one of the most exciting employers of people with disabilities (PwDs) that I have ever seen. In the US, when I think of white-collar employment for PwDs I think of EY (formally Ernst & Young). When I think of successful employers of people with developmental disabilities in America, I think of Walgreen’s distribution centers. But in terms of one company having fully integrated jobs of all kinds for people with any and all kinds of disabilities, IEC blows the socks off everything else I’ve seen so far. They have more than 250 employees with disabilities — and they are succeeding in a huge array of jobs. I met with an electrician, a lawyer, a policy advisor and an HR professional who each has a significant impairment of one kind of another. Each is a superstar at their job in addition to being a great person. The employer is able to see the ABILITIES of each individual and maximize success.
- The Israeli Defense Forces has more than 200 soldiers with disabilities. The program is new and still evolving and improving. Its participants range from super high achieving individuals on the Autism spectrum to those with significant intellectual, social, physical or other disabilities. They work in a range of fields from intelligence to a whole variety of needed tasks. They have superb leadership from General Amog and Yossi Kahanna. The Minister of Defense and the Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces have each personally been involved in the program. There are also 800 people with disabilities doing national service outside of the military. This too is an outstanding and exciting development. Both of these programs, when perfected, can and should be rolled out far more broadly. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M53ONGVpE8Q.
- INNOVATIONS AND IMPLEMENTATION: Israel is known as the “Start Up Nation” for its many inventions and innovative ideas. Given that most Israeli families have been touched by war or terrorism, there are many Israelis with physical disabilities. This has sparked a revolution in solving challenges for people with disabilities. A few highlights:
- Israelis are innovating to bring the intersections of healthcare, software and rehab together with breakthrough and inexpensive devices. I had the pleasure of witnessing the TOMTLV event where teams from Intel, Google, Israeli universities, aerospace and other forums worked together to solve problems for people with disabilities. In short time frames they were able to demonstrate impressive low cost solutions for all. Gidi Grinstein and the team at Reut are truly on the cutting edge.
- Very exciting early intervention work is being done for children with disabilities. The intensive ABA therapy available through Alut and others for children on the Autism spectrum is first rate. Beit Issie Shapiro, which uses best practices for children with physical and other disabilities, offers tremendous therapies for children with disabilities (see http://en.beitissie.org.il). As recent high-level scientific studies have proven in recent years that the brains of children can be literally re-wired to improve on all kinds of fronts by therapies, these are important developments. Indeed, significant disabilities can be dramatically reduced through early intervention and consistent therapy.
- UNFINISHED BUSINESS: After all these exciting things that I saw, there remain gaps. One such gap concerned me because it can impact global standards. Innovations in online educational tools are being developed in Israel without serious regard to access for people with disabilities. This is a real problem. I attended a special private gathering that was focused on EdTech – the future of online learning and engagement. Leading thinkers/doers are working on this project and I was very happy to be able to meet with those who can do the work to include a robust plan for accessibility for people with disabilities. I plan to continue to push on this front. Think about it. Children in the US are currently spending an average of 7.5 hours a day in front of their screens (TV, computers, phones, etc.). With new virtual gaming and phone watches launching, those experiences will be even more personal and compelling in the future. While there will always be a need and desire for in-person educational and engagement experiences, education and connection also needs to go where they eyeballs are – online. This is a quickly evolving and important field and we need to get inside the process so that the standards for learning and engagement aren’t built like buildings pre-ADA. We need electronic on-ramps so that people with disabilities will be able to fully access online experiences. In the US we have laws about this, but in Israel they do not yet have the full legal protections that we have in the United States to ensure that people with disabilities get the opportunities to succeed, just like anyone else. They have passed the disabilities treaty though, and terrific groups such as Bizchut, Kesher and others are currently working on new legislation. At our shop in the United States, www.RespectAbilityUSA.org, we are working to be the “rising tide that lifts all ships” in terms of enabling people with disabilities to have opportunities. I learned a lot in Israel that can help those of us who care about disability issues around the world.