We all feel like we need superpowers these days, along with a great deal of imagination and adaptability. Only a few weeks ago (was it really only a few weeks ago?), we were celebrating Purim, and then days later, the closures began. Right before then, I was lucky enough to visit lots of superheroes at Beit Issie Shapiro, just as they were gearing up for their own Purim celebration.
And with creativity as one of our most needed traits these days, I have been thinking about everything that Beit Issie Shapiro does for kids and adults with disabilities. As part of our collective experience of isolation on such a grand scale, we certainly have a new awareness of what it means to be limited in so many aspects of our lives. For decades, Beit Issie Shapiro has confronted this question of how to make life more accessible, more meaningful. Innovation is an ongoing requirement. They take very seriously the quote you can see in their literature: “Yes I will. Yes I am. Yes I can.”
At Purim it was on full display, with kids dressed up as everything from pilots and princesses to police officers and pirates. Each costume accommodating their needs. How about a Batmobile as part of your costume, where your wheelchair becomes part of the design?
For those of us who are not the superheroes needed on the front lines, many of us are feeling cut off, hunkered down in our homes, trying to hide outward signs of panic and/or heartbreak in front of our kids. We are rethinking how to define what is educational, recreational, and therapeutic within the confines of our living room. It is these types of questions that Noa Nitzan and her colleagues at Beit Issie Shapiro have been asking themselves over the years to ensure that individuals with disabilities can enjoy, learn and thrive.
So taking a quick break from conversations with my youngest about how the tooth fairy will still be able to travel in the age of coronavirus and from racing back and forth between piles of laundry and homemade cookies, I was happy to catch up with Noa this week. Talking to her offers a perspective that we should consider more these days, and not just when we are in crisis mode. As an occupational therapist who runs the Technology Center at Beit Issie Shapiro, Noa has devoted herself to the challenge of how assistive technology – low tech or high tech – can improve the quality of life for members of the special needs community who may otherwise be isolated.
Our digital devices have now become our lifeline as we are on full lockdown. We are more aware, more grateful than ever, I imagine, as we connect to grandparents through Facetime or watch our kids sign in to Zoom for school classes. And so many of these features on our devices, everything from voice activated recording to touch screens, are examples of innovations that have given those with special needs the opportunities to learn, interact and express themselves more effectively.
I wasn’t surprised to hear that Noa is busier than ever. The Technology Center, tasked with the job of promoting assistive technology, is still balancing numerous projects such as webinars and consultations with developers. Not sure of the terminology here? Assistive technology has helped us be to more mobile (with access ramps in playgrounds and lightweight wheelchairs), to see and hear better (from braille key boards to hearing aids), to communicate more effectively (audio recordings to voice devices for those with speech impairments) and to improve our cognitive understanding (though the use of aids such as picture based instructions).
If you are feeling a bit too confined, or in the need of a creative spark, you may want to check the Technology Center’s blog. It will open you up to a whole new world of efforts to reduce isolation, enhance independence and deepen connections for members of the special needs community. We can only guess the kind of imagination that was required to develop some of the latest technologies – like accessible musical instruments to hands-free smartphones to Eye Gaze equipment that is activated by eye movement for those who are paralyzed.
Like so many other nonprofits, Beit Issie Shapiro quickly pivoted to today’s new normal. They launched an international hotline – in Hebrew, Arabic and English – to provide counseling and assistance for people with disabilities and their families. Family therapists are checking in with hundreds of families who have been to their family centers in Qalansuwa and Dimona, as well as the main center located in Ranaana.
Beit Issie Shapiro has also set up a virtual special education kindergarten and school for children with disabilities to help parents who are coping with long days at home. All of us may be losing it a bit. (Am I the only one whose first reaction is to cringe when her daughter’s dolls aren’t practicing social distancing, or to edit bedtime stories when characters aren’t following necessary precautions?) But the loss of structure and routine that school brings is especially disruptive for kids at schools like Beit Issie Shapiro. They are not only missing out on the academic structure and social interaction, but they are also missing daily therapies that are an essential part of their routine.
It is a new reality that we are all trying to stitch together, especially as we are disconnected from our wider systems of social support. And we still have to think often about how we are going to be our best selves, how we are going to live this gigantic life. As we do try to do this, we can learn from those who have taken on this responsibility as their life’s mission. Just this month it was announced that one of Beit Issie Shapiro’s superheroes, its founder, Naomi Stuchiner, will deservedly be awarded the Israel Prize.
So I keep thinking of all the superheroes I have met over the years who have come up with creative solutions to stunning difficulties and who are now helping us fight this new type of battle. We have to stay safe, and at the same time we have to take on the challenge of how to create meaningful interactions and keep our loved ones thriving and fully engaged. In doing all of this, it definitely helps to tap into the boundless possibilities of our imagination.