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Over 2,000 retarded people would move from the institutions where they now reside into community-based housing, if a reform advocated by Labor Minister Shlomo Benizri is implemented.

Benizri will today convene the first session of an advisory council he appointed to help him determine how to implement the reform.

Only some 20 percent of retarded people in Israel live in community-based housing, which is the preferred solution in the rest of the Western world. Of these, most live in hostels. Only 100 to 200 live in apartments, mostly in Jerusalem. In contrast, more than 6,000 reside in institutions.

Though the trend is changing somewhat - 50 percent of the retarded people who have come under the ministry's care in recent years have been put into community-based housing - most of the ministry's budget still goes to institutions, and four new ones were built in recent years. And ministry professionals believe this is how it should be, arguing that most of the people who have been institutionalized are not capable of living independently.

From academic experts, however, Benizri received a different picture: They believe that 40 to 50 percent of the people currently residing in institutions would be appropriate for community-based housing. A public committee that studied the issue in 1997 reached a similar conclusion.

Benizri's advisory committee has 25 members, including representatives of the families of retarded people, government ministries, nonprofit associations that run institutions for the retarded, human rights organizations and academic experts. The committee has no timetable for concluding its work, but Benizri does plan to pledge to implement its recommendations.

Akim, a nonprofit organization that runs some of the institutions for the retarded, is one of the opponents of Benizri's plan. Human rights groups, in contrast, generally believe that despite the difficulties, community living is better than the isolation imposed by institutionalization.

Even in countries that have moved from institutions to community-based housing, such as the United States, the Scandinavian countries, Australia and Canada, critics have frequently charged that the transition was not properly prepared. The biggest problems were the lack of suitable housing and a lack of personnel to help the retarded get used to living independently. Nevertheless, the trend has continued: In Sweden, for instance, the number of retarded people living in institutions dropped from 9,200 in 1983 to 1,270 in 1996.