Israeli agencies serving disability community contend with changes brought on by pandemic

Staff tries to maintain a sense of routine for those who thrive on it, while at the same time introducing needed and relevant technology.

Yuval Wagner, founder and president of Access Israel, says “it is difficult time for us all, but for people with disabilities who are at risk and alone at their homes, it’s unbearable.” Source: Access Israel via Facebook.
As coronavirus restrictions ease up some in Israel, those with disabilities, as well as their families and program providers, are hopeful that their lives and programs return to a more normal state. These past two months have been especially difficult for Israelis with disabilities.

Yuval Wagner, founder and president of Access Israel, says “it is difficult time for us all, but for people with disabilities who are at risk and alone at their homes, it’s unbearable.”

Wagner reports that the organization has worked to adapt and expand services, and to “change its path towards a new mission” to assure that everyone’s basic needs are met,” and that “all remote services are usable, available and accessible for everyone.”

Other large organizations in the Jewish state that assist those with disabilities, like AKIM, continue to strive to meet the meets of thousands of Israelis of all ages with disabilities—from all over the country and with a wide range of needs. AKIM represents more than 35,000 people with intellectual disabilities and their 140,000 family members and legal guardians. Many clients are considered at high risk of contracting the virus due to their age (over 60) and history of medical issues.

AKIM employs 930 people, and runs 140 services and projects all over the country, including 62 community living apartments and houses. The Israeli authorities recognize AKIM Israel as an essential entity that must work in an emergency and continue operating community housing. The novel coronavirus has contributed to unprecedented staffing needs in the residences.

Moshe Aviv, AKIM Israel’s director of international relations, is pleased that the government and health authorities are carefully lifting some restrictions that have been in place, and that will allow family members, albeit while adhering to social distancing and other regulations, to unite with their loved ones. AKIM’s clients living in both family homes and in organizational residences have not been able to go to work, attend educational or recreational programs, or visit with family members for many weeks. “They are closed indoors 24/7, and for some of them, this situation has been particularly challenging,” reports Aviv.

AKIM initially set up a special task force to create remote and digital recreational activities, including sports and arts. This required the purchase of 221 iPads and computers, relying on the generosity of donors.

Aviv acknowledges how difficult this period has been for family members as well. “The families need to support their loved ones with intellectual and developmental disabilities on a 24/7 basis without the ability to give them the routine life they are used to. We are seeing more calls to our ‘Parents for Parents’ hotline with requests for the help of professional staff like psychologists, paramedical staff and behavioral specialists. It’s a demanding situation for the families as well.”

Kfar Tikva, an inclusive kibbutz-like community in Kiryat Tivon for 220-plus adults with intellectual, developmental and emotional disabilities, has continued to be operational during the pandemic, though with certain modifications. Director of development Rebecca Levy says that “as much as possible, routine and a sense of normalcy prevail. On-site employment and creative workshops, leisure activities, meals and medical/therapeutic care are all open and active, albeit in modified formats.”

The Kfar Tikva staff have worked hard to teach residents about social distancing, new hygiene protocols and to explain such new realities as limitations on entrance and exit to and from the community, unexpected changes of activities and routines, and how to use technology to stay in touch with family members.

There have been additional costs incurred during the pandemic, including purchasing of computers and protective gear, and additional hours of psychological support.

‘Where will we be when this is all over?’

Smaller programs and providers are also adjusting to new realities.

Shutaf, the Jerusalem-based provider of inclusive program for people with disabilities, has temporarily suspended in-person programming. Co-founder and director Beth Steinberg says “finding a way to provide services to children, teens and young adults with disabilities, and their families during a pandemic is complicated.”

She explains that as a parent of a young adult with disabilities, “I’m just trying to cope while making sure his life feels reasonably secure. As a co-founder of a nonprofit dedicated to providing important inclusive informal education programs, I’m uptight: Where will we be when this is all over? Kids will need in-person services more than ever. What will be able to offer them safely and affordably?”

With most staff furloughed, Steinberg, co-founder and co-director Miriam Avraham, and a bat sherut (national service volunteer) are offering some online activities for teen and young adult participants, as well as weekly online family activities. The directors and professional staff also remain in phone contact with families.

Menachem Stolpner, founder and director of Shai Asher, a nonprofit apprenticeship career training program for people with special needs on Kibbutz Shluchot near Beit She’an in northern Israel, worries about his trainees during this unusual period when they are unable to come to work. “My major concern with them is depression,” he says. “For each of them, coming to work is a major part of their daily life,” giving them meaning and responsibility.

The program provides vocational training and real work experiences for people with disabilities. “The central workplace is a greenhouse, where organic herbs and spices are grown and marketed locally, and an outdoor vegetable garden where we grow for our own consumption,” he explains. Program participants also work in such areas of the kibbutz as the dairy, dining room, zoo and turkey farm.

Stolpner keeps in touch with his workers through WhatsApp and sends pictures to show how everything is progressing in the greenhouse and in the gardens. “I don’t know if it helps them or me because they seem sad each time we connect,” he acknowledges. He also notes that the pandemic “couldn’t have happened at a more inopportune time since I need their help, and there is so much to do.”

He has been maintaining the greenhouse and vegetable garden on his own, longing for the day when his workers will return.

‘Diminish barriers, real and perceived’

While Israel has been affected and impacted in myriad ways by the coronavirus, it has fared better than many countries around the world. As Israelis begin to return (in stages) to greater normalcy, other countries are turning to them for guidance.

James A. Lassner, executive director of FAISR‒Friends of Access Israel, observes “during these trying times, people around the world feel a sense of paralysis. We at Friends of Access Israel, together with our collaborative partner, Access Israel, are continuing to aggressively work with like-minded global organizations to diminish barriers, real and perceived, for people with disabilities and the elderly.”

Michal Rimon, CEO of Access Israel, is proud that the can share what Israel has learned with the rest of the world. “It was clear that with the solutions we are developing here in Israel, such as promoting accessible services of essential and emergency services that are so crucial these days, we have to reach out and share them globally—encouraging the great international connections we have made to join forces, share knowledge and act on a global level making sure no one is left behind.”

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