by Josh Hasten
Wheelchair-bound Yoav Kreim – a well-known leader and spokesperson for people with disabilities in Israel for more than 20 years – has led demonstrations, lobbied members of Knesset to pass legislation, and helped shape public opinion. Therefore, it was no surprise that Kreim was one of the lead participants and facilitators at the recent 2nd annual Israel Self-Advocacy Conference in Jerusalem.
“There is a great need to allow weaker voices in the population to be heard,” Kreim said. “People have a lot to say; they just need to be given the chance.”
Israel Elwyn and Beit Issie Shapiro, two leading organizations in Israel for providing disability services and advocating for disability rights, were behind the late-January conference for people with developmental and physical disabilities. But the trademark of the event – which is also made possible by the support of the Ruderman Family Foundation and the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles – is that it is planned, organized, and led by the participants themselves, allowing those present to learn how to most effectively advocate for their own needs.
“This joint project is based on our worldview that people with disabilities are able to and need to advocate for themselves,” Shira Ruderman, Israel director of the Ruderman Family Foundation, told JNS.org.
“We must help provide them with the best and most professional tools available. Our foundation believes in full inclusion and this partnership realizes our joint values in improving the status of people with disabilities,” she said.
The topic of this year’s gathering, attended by more than 80 people with disabilities from across Israel, centered on employment issues including conditions in the workplace, salary concerns, interoffice relationships, inclusion, and more. After opening remarks by representatives of the various sponsor organizations, participants broke off into smaller discussion groups facilitated by people with disabilities, in order to delve into various employment issues and to discuss strategies towards improving their respective work environments.
Some of the group conversations included whether or not employees with disabilities felt they were being compensated appropriately for their work, whether or not they felt respected by their employers and co-workers, and if they were allotted the number of vacation days they are entitled to, among other topics. Facilitators then discussed options and strategies for those who felt their needs were not being met.
David Marcu, the CEO of Israel Elwyn, told JNS.org that for the past several years, the leaders of the various organizations who sponsored the conference have been working together in order to “allow the members of the intellectually disabled community to learn self-empowerment, and find their own voice, so they can influence their own lives.”
Marcu said the aim of the conference was to show people with disabilities that they have the right to fair employment. “We are trying to help teach them their rights in the labor market,” he said.
Marcu added, “Whether it’s in the office, or going to the doctor, this population has the right to understand and to respond [to issues concerning their own lives], and not to be kept out of the loop with matters only discussed through their aides.”
Jean Judes, the executive director of Beit Issie Shapiro, agrees with Marcu. She told JNS.org her organization believes that “every human being has a right to decide what is important for him or her, to be respectively heard, and to be taken seriously.”
Judes said, “While [people with disabilities] are the least listened to, today [at the conference] they are practicing and gaining confidence to let their voices be heard.”
“What amazes me is how much intelligence there is in these people, how much they truly understand,” Judes added. “It is hard for them sometimes to put it into words, but we are giving them the tools to express themselves. It is a long but essential process, since every human being should have the basic right in making decisions about their own lives.”
Aaron Goldberg – senior vice president, Israel, and director of the Israel Office of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles – says people with disabilities make up a group “that is often invisible.”
“We need to be able to give them a voice and the tools to advocate for themselves,” he said. “Allowing them to live lives of dignity is better for their community and for society as a whole.”
Dudu Cheftzadi, who along with Yoav Kreim was tasked with leading one of the conference’s group discussions on employment, said people with disabilities “are not that different” from the general population.
“It is important that we are able to stand up for our rights,” Cheftzadi said.