Leveling the Playing Field

If Naomi Stuchiner has her way, within a few years people with disabilities will be fully involved in Israeli society.

Michal Margalit
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Michal Margalit

Naomi Stuchiner dreams of a society in which words such as prejudice, ignorance and most of all exclusion are never used in reference to the role of people with special needs in the community. If she has her way, within a few years people with disabilities will be fully involved in Israeli society.

Stuchiner, 58, is the founder and director of the Ra'anana-based Beit Issie Shapiro, Israel's first multi-service center for disabled children. The center is named for her father. In a recent interview she related that when she came to Israel from South Africa in 1970, most children with disabilities ended up in residential care with few opportunities to participate in their community.

The not-for-profit center is celebrating its silver anniversary this year. Beit Issie Shapiro currently serves 8,000 children and adults with developmental and physical disabilities including autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy. It provides speech and physical therapy, educational and social programs, dental care, daycare for 120 children and community outreach, among other services.

The anniversary celebrations, which began in May, will culminate in November with a gala ball whose guest of honor will be former U.S. President Bill Clinton. Clinton, who will be attending events to mark the tenth anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was invited by Beit Issie's long-term sponsors, Jules and Eddie Trump. The brothers, who live in the U.S., once worked with Clinton's former disability rights adviser, the late Stanley Herr.

A total of 54 percent of Beit Issie Shapiro's $5 million annual budget comes from donations from Israel and abroad. An additional 27 percent is provided by the government and 17 percent from fees. The remainder is funded by revenues from its professional training services. Every year, 450 volunteers contribute their time and effort to the institution.

"It's a constant struggle for any nonprofit," says Stuchiner, who has a B.A. in social work from South Africa's University of the Witwatersrand, "but in recent years the Intifada and the recession that came with it have made it all the more difficult. We've had major benefactors say `sorry, but we are raising funds for terror victims and the poor' which are very legitimate causes, but the other non-profit services are inevitably put aside in many cases, and it leaves them in a vulnerable position."

With limited funds and limited space - the Ra'anana center is BIS's only location in Israel - it can only serve a certain number of people.

"There is a certain quota that we are able to take," says Stuchiner, "so those who have the most difficulties and developmental issues who don't have access to other services are high on the priority list. Those who are mildly disabled could probably get services from other agencies if we are full. There is also the issue of geographic proximity - those who come from very far are normally those we can't take, but we refer them to services close to their homes. We will not take extra children if it adds to the pressure - we have to maintain a very high professional standard."

South African roots

Although Beit Issie was established in 1980, its roots go back to 1950s Johannesburg. Issie Shapiro, Stuchiner's lawyer-turned-businessman father, helped to set up the Selwyn Segal Hostel - the first Jewish residential center for people with disabilities in South Africa - when he realized the absence of special-needs facilities based on the Jewish values of compassion and dignity. After making aliya in 1977 he began working on a similar initiative in Israel, but died in 1980 of a heart attack while on a fundraising trip to the U.S.

During the weeklong shiva mourning period following his death, Stuchiner and her siblings decided to honor their father's legacy by creating an innovative center for the handicapped in his name.

At first, the center had only 16 clients. After working with special-needs children for 25 years, Stuchiner admits that her job is often emotionally demanding.

"The difficult moments are mostly the moments with the families." She says. "I look at their eyes, and they often reflect great sadness. I get terribly distressed when I can't help parents, for example when a child dies. It's the terrible feeling that even if he wasn't a healthy child, losing a child is losing a child.

"But then what makes me function at my best is being in touch with my emotional side. If I were just a technocrat what would motivate my work?"

In addition to providing services, BIS is an advocacy organization. It has lobbied for the passage of laws such as the Early Intervention Law 2000 (guaranteeing partial state funding of daycare for children aged one to three) and Accessibility Laws 2004.

To promote inclusion, its Chen Scheme has introduced the youth leadership concept, where secondary school pupils work with disabled children and change places with children in special schools for short periods. The Life Skills program enables adult clients to take university courses.

Fighting prejudice starts young

Stuchiner, who has eight grandchildren, was reminded this summer that there's still a long way to go on the inclusion front when amusement parks Superland and Luna Park refused admittance to disabled children.

"There are still a lot of prejudiced people who have their own preconceived notions," she says, "and I think they are afraid to take a risk. It shows that it's the adults that normally notice the difference, not the children. Children may ask questions which everybody's embarrassed to answer, and that's when the prejudice starts. If you don't work with kids, you can't expect that every child will naturally choose to play with the disabled kid."

BIS is involved in creating an area within Park Ra'anana that is designed to accommodate the needs of both children with disabilities and able-bodied children (see box).

Stuchiner will leave her current position in January, 2006 to become BIS's international corporate executive, working from Israel in collaboration with BIS's offices in the U.S., Canada, the UK and South Africa. She will focus on planning future projects for BIS and already has at least one idea: "Mental health services for people with disabilities is something that concerns me and I hope one day we'll be able to create suitable services of that kind at BIS."

Park Haverim (Friends) in Ra'anana Park was officially opened yesterday. The park, which was two years in the planning, is designed to accommodate children with special needs between the ages of one and 12 and will enable them to share their playground pastimes with their able-bodied friends.

The $1 million park, which was funded by the UK branch of the Jewish National Fund, is a collaborative venture between Beit Issie Shapiro and the Ra'anana municipality. The idea developed the idea in consultation with BIS children, their parents, mainstream education pupils, educators and members of the local community.

The park is laid out like a clock face, with 12 sections that offer different facilities based on different senses. This layout is aimed at making navigation easier for sight-impaired children.

At the music station, children with hearing impairments can walk on a wooden echo board and feel sound vibrations through their feet.

Other features include an Alice-in-Wonderland-style labyrinth, mirror rooms, light-and-shadow rooms and the "big-and-small" castle.

In addition to the "clock" there are mainstream playground facilities suitable for all children.

BIS's occupational therapist and environmental design expert Michele Shapiro said: "It's not a playground solely for the disabled. Its purpose is to create a place where children can learn to play together so when they are older they will know to live with one another."

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