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JNF Special Report: Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month In Israel

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SPECIAL REPORT: JEWISH DISABILITIES AWARENESS MONTH IN ISRAEL
5th Graders Experience Inclusion Out in the Field

Plagim
Group picture of children from the Plagim Regional School at LOTEM’s Emek Hashalom.

A few weeks ago, Jews around the world celebrated the holiday of Tu BiShvat. Originally an agricultural commemoration, Tu BiShvat has evolved over the centuries into a festive holiday symbolizing the connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. It’s become the custom for schoolchildren across the country to plant saplings in honor of the birthday of the trees and most schools organize nature outings to celebrate the trees and the new growth of the oncoming spring.

For thousands of children with disabilities, this quintessential Israeli experience is not to be taken for granted. Unable to navigate muddy forest trails and rocky meadows, many children with disabilities miss out on the joy of planting a tree or seeing the spring wildflowers. Additionally, the logistics of taking children with disabilities out of their daily framework can be daunting; the expense of extra staff and customized buses, as well as the need to maintain routine, often keep special needs classes inside.

The Plagim Regional School at Kibbutz HaZorea, located near the Menashe plateau in the Carmel Mountain range, is making sure that their children don’t miss out on the experience and celebration of nature on Tu BiShvat or any other day of the year. When the school embarked on their annual Tu BiShvat field trip to nearby Emek Hashalom, Iris Segel’s special needs class of eight kids with various degrees of Cerebral Palsy came along. Luckily, the complex logistics of the trip were mitigated by the helpful presence of a group of fifth-grade volunteers from the Plagim School’s regular education fifth grade class.

Close to 200,000 children with recognized disabilities are enrolled in the Israeli education system. Some 85% attend regular schools rather than special education schools, but most Israeli schools are ill-equipped to run full inclusion programs, in which children with different abilities learn side-by-side in the same classrooms. Instead, most children with disabilities are taught in separate classes within the regular school framework. Often, field trips or volunteer programs within the school are the only settings in which children of different abilities interact.

The Plagim fifth graders volunteer once a week in the Keren Or classroom, helping out with math and reading work and playing games. Hagai, a dedicated student volunteer, explained the importance of accompanying the group on this trip:

I was curious to see how they would deal with their disabilities in nature. It makes me sad that it’s hard for them and that some of them are literally in pain. But today I saw another side of my friends. I saw how being outside opens them up, both physically and socially.” “We all want to help them to do the things we get to do,” offered his friend Gal. “They deserve to get out and enjoy this day as much as everyone else does.”

And enjoy they did. The class trip was facilitated by LOTEM-Making Nature Accessible, a unique Jewish National Fund partner organization dedicated to making nature accessible to people with special needs. LOTEM’s fully accessible ecological farm in the Shalom Valley made it possible for everyone to participate. Ya’ara, the LOTEM educator, began by telling the children that one of the goals for the day was “to be together and to help each other.” At first, the children from the special needs and regular education classes were sitting separately, unsure how to interact in this new setting. By the end of the day, they were talking with each other and walking side-by-side on their own.

The tree-themed activities were all tailored to engage students of different intellectual and physical abilities. The more able-bodied kids helped their friends move from place to place and explore the woods. A few seized the rare opportunity to set their walkers aside, lie down on the ground mat, and soak up the warm sun.
Timna, another LOTEM guide trained to share her knowledge of nature and ancient agriculture with special needs groups, described the gratification of working with special needs kids in nature:

We are trained well, but it is really out here b’shetach (in the field) that I understand what it means to be physically or cognitively challenged. I like taking something that might be seen as challenging for them, and making it fun and easy.”

Children with special needs do not always encounter such supportive attitudes. Rom is an eleven-year-old who immigrated to Israel with his family a year ago. In Belgium his teachers did not allow him to talk about his disability (mild Cerebral Palsy that affects his ability to walk), and his family decided that Israel would be more accepting of who he is. He does not use a wheelchair, or even a walker, yet he often feels that his outdoor options are limited.

I don’t always get to go where the other kids are going,” he relates. “Sometimes I want to, but they say ‘no honey, it’s just not right for you.’ It’s very frustrating.”

His teacher, Iris Segel strives to make it possible for Rom and his friends to expand their horizons, with the help of groundbreaking programs like LOTEM. “There are so few trails in the north that are really accessible. Every little thing is challenging getting seated, moving around on uneven ground, hearing the guide clearly. And it’s not just about physical accessibility. You need people who can make it come alive for kids with all different kinds of abilities.”

LOTEM has been creating this experience for the Keren Or kids for close to 10 years. “Nature really expands their experience,” Segel says. “They are more spontaneous, have more fun, talk about new things, and understand their own needs and potential a bit better.”

The high point of the outing came at the end, when the special needs class walked or were driven a short way across the valley to join their peers at the Forer Spring. In a field filled with wild poppies and almond blossoms, the whole school celebrated spring together, drinking hot tea, jamming in a drum circle, and tossing pebbles into a hidden pool.

Eleven-year-old Yuval found walking on the trail difficult, but everything excited her gathering rocks, picking up pieces of bark and leaves, and going down to the spring. “What nice things on the ground. There are things made from wood!” she marveled. Her smile did not leave her face the entire outing. “Let’s walk instead of drive,” she suggested. “It is healthy for me to walk with my feet.”

About Karin Ventura

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