NGO for Deaf Children Fears Closure After Ministry Slashes Budget

Shema, which provides services to 1,000 children who are deaf or hard of hearing, will see its budget cut by 30 percent over two years.

A Shema center in Tel Aviv. The nonprofit provides afternoon activities such as social clubs and enrichment classes for deaf and hard-of-hearing children.

The only nonprofit organization providing social and therapeutic services for deaf and hard-of-hearing children in Israel could close, after the Social Affairs Ministry slashed its budget by 30 percent.

The budget cuts for Shema will take place over two years, but the government is offering no alternative plans for the children. The nonprofit provides services to 1,000 children and youth aged 6-18 – a third of the 3,200 deaf and hearing-impaired children in Israel.

The nonprofit operates five centers across the country, holding afternoon activities such as social clubs and enrichment classes, a bank for loaning hearing aids and amplifiers, support for families and children, with an emphasis on dealing with hearing loss and teaching of sign language.

In 2013, Shema received 580,000 shekels ($150,000) from the government, but in 2015 this dropped to 400,000 shekels, amounting to 15% of the group’s budget. As a result, the group now finds itself with a deficit of 500,000 shekels. It has started firing employees, reducing hours of activity and the scope of some positions. No new personnel are being hired and no new equipment purchased.

The group’s director, Arik Meir, told Haaretz, “We are in a difficult situation due to the meager support we receive and the constant need to seek contributions in order to stay afloat. We have a deficit of hundreds of thousands of shekels and if financial assistance is not increased, we won’t be able to sustain our activities.”

As a result of the cuts, the Knesset Education, Culture and Sports Committee is holding a special debate Monday over funding at the nonprofit and the treatment of pupils with hearing disabilities. “Current levels of government funding are miserable and disturbing,” said MK Merav Ben Ari (Kulanu), who initiated the discussion. “There is no other agency in Israel that does what Shema does for those children, and we can’t allow a nonprofit like this to close under any circumstance.”

The Social Affairs Ministry has a separate division for each disability it is responsible for, except the deaf and hard of hearing. There are designated departments for people with physical disabilities, developmental disabilities, and people with autism or visual impairment. The mentally challenged are looked after by the Health Ministry. Last year, a national supervisor responsible for deaf and hearing-impaired children was appointed, after 10 years in which the population had no specific official in any government ministry. However, there is still no ministerial department responsible for the group.

According to the Education Ministry, most children with hearing impairments (about 2,730 students) study in regular schools, whereas about 1,170 attend special classes. Only 297 children attend separate schools.

Many parents of hearing-impaired children attending regular classes believe their children need an environment that includes other children like them. “It’s tricky when they’re incorporated with normal children. They require tremendous effort to carry out any activity, and most people don’t realize this,” said the mother of a 13-year-old with a severe hearing impairment. “They don’t feel accepted anywhere. The state doesn’t help, so we embraced Shema as the only place that provides our daughter with a group she can identify with, in which she meets other children with hearing aids, who understand her without words, without her having to explain that she couldn’t read their lips.”

The Social Affairs Ministry responded said it is “committed to maintaining equal financial resourcing, enabling any group to seek assistance. The dedicated amount for the deaf did not decrease this year, but the number of nonprofit groups approaching us grew. Shema received help, as did other groups assisting the hearing-impaired.”

Officials at the ministry said Shema receives additional funding amounting to hundreds of thousands of shekels. However, Haaretz has learned that this refers to a specific project that Shema won a tender for three years ago and is not part of the ongoing financial support by the government.