What Easing Restrictions Means for the Special Needs Community

An Alei Siach resident. Source: Alei Siach

Many of the public discussions about managing the coronavirus pandemic center around trade-offs. How many people’s livelihoods should be destroyed, in order to save how many lives? Can we let parents return to work, while their children don’t return to school?

These discussions are important. Doctors worried about public health being compromised and financial experts concerned about the shrinking economy both deserve to have their voices heard. However, there is a voice missing from the wider conversation about how lifting restrictions will affect the nation – that of the special needs community.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the special needs community in Israel rarely made headlines, save for the occasional “wheelchairs blocking the highway” protest. But people with special needs are an important part of society, and Israelis who don’t have a personal connection to people living with disabilities should be aware of how easing restrictions affects our community.

Restoring special education

Many parents are stressed, juggling working from home while simultaneously helping their children with distance learning. But families of children with special needs are struggling in a different way. Some parents of children with special needs don’t have access to tools, therapies, and equipment at home that their kids benefit from at school.

The return of special education, albeit in small groups, is a welcome step. It takes enormous pressure off families, and means that children with special needs will be able to resume the therapeutic and educational activities that are so important for their development. Similarly, the announcement that parents will be able to share child-minding duties with other families is encouraging news for families with special needs kids.

More employees in the workplace

Currently, over one million Israelis — 26% of the nation’s workforce — have filed for unemployment benefits. The Ministry of Economy hopes that lifting some of the restrictions on the number of employees in the workplace will lead to more people earning a steady paycheck once again.

Before the pandemic, just 57% of adult Israelis with disabilities worked. Statistics about the number of disabled people who have lost jobs since the onset of the pandemic aren’t available, but we can safely assume the rates are at least as high (1 in 4 people) as in the general population.

Because many people with disabilities work in the service industry, factories, and small businesses – the sectors reopened by the government on Saturday night – we expect that some people with disabilities will return to work. However, stigmas against people with disabilities still persist. We believe that unfortunately, some employers may choose to prioritize non-disabled employees returning to the workplace first.

Next steps

A serious issue affecting people with disabilities is physical health. A significant number of people living with special needs have compromised immune systems and/or preexisting medical conditions, meaning that they are in greater danger than others if they are infected with the coronavirus.

Many people with special needs will need to adhere to social distancing guidelines for a longer period of time than the general public. Even though this will be a tremendous hardship in terms of loneliness and isolation, not to mention financial consequences of time away from work, I am in favor of erring on the side of caution.

We are enduring a challenging and frightening disruption to our daily lives and it makes sense to seek comfort in these gradual lifts in restrictions. It’s also perfectly natural for us to focus on the issues that directly affect us and express frustration at restrictions that seem unnecessarily harsh. A small business owner will view the shuttering of shops differently than an epidemiologist.

I humbly ask the public to be mindful of the experiences of people facing the pandemic with disabilities and/or preexisting conditions. As members of Am Israel, we are all inherently connected and responsible for the wellbeing of one another. We must remember that we are one nation, despite our external and political divisions, and our future is at stake.

Whether we are able-bodied or living with disabilities, our health and lives are paramount.

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Perkal is the Director and Founder of Alei Siach, a Jerusalem-based nonprofit organization providing all-inclusive solutions for people living with special needs and their families.
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