'Garden of Eden' Being Built for Disabled in Israel Sparks Controversy Over Its Ideology

Supporters tout project's 'reverse integration'; opponents foresee ghetto for disabled

An illustration of the planned project.
Studio 84 / Plesner Architechts

Among the trees of the Ilanot Forest in Kadima-Tzoran, far from the public eye, a unique and controversial project is being built. Kiryat Olga, which will officially appear on the map in another year and a half, is being erected with government assistance as a neighborhood for physically and mentally disabled adults. The 40-dunam (10 acre) project will include accessible residences for the disabled, student dorms and public buildings that will serve both the project and the surrounding area.

The project has already generated a stormy ideological debate among professionals and disabled-rights activists. Opponents say Kiryat Olga will be a well-appointed ghetto that will reinforce prejudices and keep the disabled out of sight, where society won’t have to deal with integrating them.

But the initiative’s many supporters argue it will be a “Garden of Eden for people with disabilities,” fully accessible and built to some of the highest standards in the world. It will, they say, allow for “reverse integration” – the integration of people without disabilities into an environment of people with disabilities, which will actually facilitate equitable encounters and change people’s attitudes.

In any case, the neighborhood is a fait accompli; the project is a joint venture by the Alyn Beit Noam nonprofit association, headed by Yitzhak (Iki) Bar-Haim, and the government, which is providing substantial funding. The land was allocated by the Israel Land Authority for a symbolic leasing fee, and after getting all the needed approvals from the planning bodies it was approved by the cabinet at the behest of Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel. It will cost more than 180 million shekels ($49.1 million), with 55 percent coming from donations and 80 million shekels to come from various government ministries. Development will be overseen by a steering committee headed by Social Equality Ministry director-general Avi Cohen.

All the residences will be “smart” homes, so the disabled will be able to operate all the systems, including the entrances, lighting, air conditioning, shutters, television and the like by remote control. The neighborhood will have 110 apartments of this type, half for people with moderate to severe disabilities, and half will serve as dorms for students in the area’s colleges who will live alongside the disabled, and in return will pay only 1,000 shekels a month rent and get an academic credit point. The students will not be working with the disabled, but Alyn Beit Noam understood that to attract the general population to the neighborhood there would have to be incentives.

The public facilities will serve both the disabled and non-disabled residents of the area; according to the plan, some 2,000 people are expected to use the neighborhood’s services every day. For example, there will be a combination day center and community center that will serve some 70 people with complex disabilities in the morning, while in the afternoon it will be a regional community center for residents of the Sharon area. There will be a national institute for researching disabilities that will provide training and disseminate knowledge on the subject, a sports center that will include both a semi-Olympic size pool and a pool accessible to the disabled, an extreme-sports park, a guest house, an art gallery, restaurant, pub and more.

Opponents of the plan stress that even if students are part of the community, the integration of the disabled with them and others who might use the facilities is artificial and doesn’t treat the disabled as an integral part of Israeli society. That the project is being built in a forest and not in a city only strengthens that notion.

“It’s sad that in Israel, rather than making an urban neighborhood accessible and allocating a number of apartments to people with disabilities, again they’re building a separate framework,” said Naama Lerner, head of the community department at Bizchut, a leading advocacy organization for the disabled. “It conveys a message that we’ve despaired of the vision of making the community accessible to the disabled, rather than providing hope that the community can be made accessible and accept everyone.”

Lerner added that the project goes against the global trend of integrating the disabled into the community, in accordance with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which Israel ratified in September 2012. Article 19 of the convention states that “persons with disabilities have the opportunity to choose their place of residence and where and with whom they live on an equal basis with others, and are not obliged to live in a particular living arrangement.”

Shlomo Elyashar, who was head of the Social Affairs Ministry’s rehabilitation department for 15 years and who retired last year, is also opposed. “We are creating an isolated, artificial framework that is not part of the student community and we can’t ignore this,” he said, adding that the same funds could finance 20 community apartments that would serve 120 people with disabilities.

No one doubts good intentions

None of the project’s opponents doubts the good intentions of Iki Bar Haim, who is behind the plan. His son, Udi, is disabled and Bar Haim has spent the last 30 years working with the disabled. His organization, Alyn Beit Noam, runs a network of community group homes.

Bar Haim says that not only does this project meet the stipulations of the UN convention, it fulfills them even better than group homes in the community. In this project, he says, the apartments slated for the disabled are private homes in all respects in which each resident lives independently, as opposed to neighborhood apartments, where they generally live with five other people not of their choosing and are under supervision.

“The traditional approach [to integration] brings people with disabilities to areas where the non-disabled live, a situation that creates problems of accessibility, the environs recoiling from the disabled and structural inferiority of the disabled,” Bar Haim says. At Kiryat Olga, residents can decide for themselves when to sleep, when and what to eat, and will have their own showers. Each resident will furnish his own place and choose his own clothes, and can invite anyone he wants to visit or even sleep over.

Bar Haim notes that the apartments for the disabled have already been snapped up, and there are dozens of people on a waiting list. “The progress that everyone’s been talking about – I’ve been operating apartments like that for years. So I have clients who live in community housing, but the neighbors don’t want them, the sidewalks aren’t accessible – that’s better integration?”

Lior, who lives in one of Alyn’s group homes in Kiryat Ono, is slated to take one of Kiryat Olga’s apartments. His parents are dead and his sister, Liat, explains that the group home isn’t an optimal solution.

“The building is in the community but unfortunately there is no connection between the residence and the community,” she says. “Our brother has no way of enjoying what’s happening outside the apartment, his friends who live in other apartments in Kiryat Ono aren’t accessible, none of the facilities in the neighborhood are accessible so it turns out that our brother is living in the community but can’t use its services.”