More than 100 children with severe physical and mental disabilities were participating in activities at their school and therapy center in Ra’anana this morning, when sirens sounded just a few minutes before the temporary cease-fire took effect.
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Almost a similar number of staffers at Beit Issie Shapiro rushed the c hildren to the campus music center, located on the very same floor, which doubles at times like this as a bomb shelter. “We had 50 children under the age of four in our early intervention program, another 50 aged five to 12 in our special education school, and 10 kids who were in the pool at the time,” recounts Benjy Maor, head of international resource development at the organization, which provides educational and therapeutic services to thousands of Israelis each year, most of them children.
“By now the kids are used to it, since we’ve already experienced about five or six sirens. There wasn’t much crying today, except for one kid, who just seemed to be having a bad day. Inside the shelter, our staffers sing to them because we find that helps calm them down.”
At Beit Issie Shapiro, one of Israel’s oldest non-profits, teachers and therapists have been coping on an almost daily basis with a challenge affecting hundreds of thousands of Israelis today: How to make sure that those with limited mobility – the disabled and the elderly – get into their safe spaces in the nick of time.
Depending on their geographic location, according to a map published by the Home Front Command, Israelis have anywhere from 15 seconds to three minutes to get to safe spaces once the sirens have sounded. In most of the densely populated areas of the country, the amount of time is one-and-a-half minutes.
For many individuals with disabilities, as well as the elderly, that can be a difficult task, especially if the safe space is not in their immediate vicinity or requires moving up or down stairs. In fact, many of the injuries recorded in the first few days of the conflict were among Israelis who had fallen while scrambling to safety.
Within 24 hours of the first rockets landing in Israel, Beit Issie Shapiro set up a special hotline, manned by a team of psychologists and social workers, to address concerns of parents of disabled children. “Our main goal was to restore the confidence of these parents, who feel absolutely helpless at times like these,” says Maor.
Because autistic children tend to be sensitive to noise, he reports, many had very bad responses to the sounds of sirens. “We had parents who called in saying their children were screaming and would not cooperate when they wanted to move them to a shelter,” says Maor. “What we advised them to do was to practice the routine of moving to a safe space, and many found that this was a tremendous help in overcoming their anxieties.”
While it’s fine for parents of high-functioning children to answer questions from their little ones about the security situation in great detail, says Maor, the hotline specialists recommend they be more selective when disseminating information to children with intellectual disabilities. “What’s important for these children to understand is that there will be a change in their routine. They don’t need to know why Hamas is sending rockets to Israel.”
In a case involving the elderly, he reports, a feuding couple called the hotline for advice after the wheelchair-bound husband instructed his wife to go down the stairs to the building bomb shelter, and she refused, preferring to be at his side. “They just kept yelling at each other,” says Maor, “so what we advised them was to get one of their adult children involved.”
According to the latest study published by the Joint Distribution Committee, roughly 1 million people in Israel (about 25 percent of the adult working-age population) suffer from disabilities. Another 310,000 children have some form of disability, says Maor, in line with rates elsewhere in the world.
Since the onset of fighting between Israel and Hamas almost two weeks ago, the JDC has beefed up its volunteer staff in the south, the closest target for rockets launched from Gaza, in order to tend to the approximately 70,000 adults with disabilities living in that part of the country, particularly those who are housebound.
According to the latest JDC figures, more than 805,000 individuals in Israel are over the age of 65, with their share in the total population on the rise since the start of the millennium.
Sleeping in security
On its website, the Home Front Command recommends that if they cannot get to the nearest shelter in time, individuals with limited mobility should consider creating an alternative safe space or turning their sleeping area into one. It also recommends that the path to the safe space be cleared in advance to avoid tripping on obstacles, and that the wheelchair bound have spare batteries on hand just in case their motors conk out.
In the event that they are unable to use an elevator to reach the nearest shelter, the Home Front Command recommends they prepare themselves to be carried by others.
For some children of elderly parents, however, it’s become a matter of balancing risks these days. “My father needs a walker to get around, and it takes a while to get him out of his seat,” says a Tel Avivian, who asked that his name not be published. “We figured that it was riskier to get him to the bomb shelter, which requires that he go down some stairs, than to keep him sitting in his usual place in front of the TV. The chances of the house taking a direct hit, we figured, were smaller than his falling trying to make his way to the safe space in less than a minute and a half. All we asked is that he sit away from the windows so if shrapnel falls in the yard and the windows break, he doesn’t get cut.”