Israeli playground, ‘Sesame Street’ help include kids with disabilities

Israeli Ambassador Ron Prosor, a talented diplomat, has a challenging job defending Israel in the U.N.’s hotbed of anti-Zionism and double standards. Indeed, it’s not often that Israel is treated like a hero in that forum. However, during the U.N. Conference of States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Israel got to shine and make us proud.

Israel’s special speaker at the U.N., who appeared on the platform in front of hundreds of leaders from around the world, was Jean Judes, executive director of Beit Issie Shapiro (BIS). BIS has been rated as Israel’s most effective nonprofit. It is committed to establishing an inclusive society and impacts around 30,000 people annually.

At the U.N., Judes focused on changing perceptions of people with disabilities, starting at an early age. She shared research demonstrating that the challenges for people with disabilities lies not only in their impairments, but also largely within the society in which they live. To achieve an inclusive society, she explained, one has to look at the person with disabilities within the surrounding family, community, and societal contexts. Any community-based change of cultural, social or economic policies requires intervention on all levels.

At the U.N., Judes shared social research with young children who were shown pictures of three children, one who is typical, one who uses a wheelchair, and one who uses a hearing aid. After being shown the pictures, the children were asked three simple questions:

1. Who would you like to invite to play with you?

2. Some kids are really smart, which is that kid?

3. Some kids are likely to make a mess, which kid is that?

The research discovered that children at an early age think, feel and act differently towards children with disabilities, and have negative perceptions towards them. These negative perceptions are the basis for future stigmas.

This research is not just important for Israel; it is vital for America as well.

This week we celebrated the 23rd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). A major goal of the ADA was to enable Americans with disabilities to be employed so they can achieve the American dream.

However, since the inception of the ADA, there has been zero improvement in the percentage of Americans with disabilities in the workforce. In fact, 70 percent of working-age Americans with disabilities are not employed, causing poverty, isolation and other hardships.

Judes’ examples should inspire us to undertake educational programs to alter children’s attitudes, as well as those of their teachers and parents, so that attitudes regarding people with disabilities can align with our national interest for people of ALL abilities to be empowered to make a positive contribution to our nation.

It’s easy to talk the talk. It’s hard to walk the walk. BIS is doing both. Judes spoke of an innovative, inclusive playground built in Israel where children who use wheelchairs can play with typical children. With the help of disability leaders, BIS designed workshops for children, kindergarten teachers and parents to use the playground to inspire people across Israel. A variety of workshops show how perceptions turn into stereotypes. They learn that in order to remove barriers and to create a real deep change in society, attitudes of the population must change from kindergarten age through adults.

To reinforce the change of attitudes, BIS partnered with Sesame Street’s Hebrew language version in Israel. The show added a Muppet who uses a wheelchair to the Israeli cast.

Her name is Sivan and she is pretty, strong, clever and popular. Children watch this program and are influenced by it. This is a model of positive inclusion for children starting at very young ages. BIS has even used Sivan to develop the workshops for children in the school system.

At the U.N., Judes showed the delegates a Sesame Street TV clip about their park and Sivan. It was met by loud applause from hundreds of people, including leaders from countries that do not typically applaud Israel. This was a PR win for Israel. But more importantly, BIS’ work has led to solid positive change inside Israel.

BIS is now consulting with 30 local councils about setting up parks, and social programming. They are working on the critical component of developing awareness among policy makers. Recently, as a result of the model park project, and with the help of the Commission for Rights of People with Disabilities, Israel has required all new parks to be accessible. Additionally, BIS is helping countries including South Africa, Uruguay, and the UK to establish similar parks.

After the U.N. presentation, there was a private reception with Ambassador Prosor, BIS leaders and others in the home of disability activists Shelley and Ruven Cohen. The head of Sesame Street spoke movingly about Sivan, and what she means to the inclusion of children with disabilities in Israel.

Let’s hope that Sesame Street here in America will introduce such characters as Sivan. An early start to positive and inclusive thinking can help us build a better future for all of us.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is president of RespectAbilityUSA.org; David Cohen is a fellow at RespectAbilityUSA.org.

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