Jerusalem — “Inclusion,” the modern term for “mainstreaming,” is the dream of many parents of special needs children. With the right resources, they say, even children with severe disabilities can often sit alongside their “typical” peers and learn in the same classroom.
While some physically disabled Israeli children are benefiting from inclusion, the American model of full inclusion isn’t the norm here, according to educators.
Although some schools around the country have special classes for children on the autism spectrum, for example, these children spend more time with each other than they do with the typical kids in their school.
Even children who start off in preschools, such as the ones run by Variety and Shalva, attended by both typical and special needs children, virtually always end up in special education.
Many parents don’t mind this.
“I’ve been very happy with the special ‘tikshoret’ [communications] program my daughter has attended all these years,” said “Avram,” the father of a 13-year-old with autism and moderate physical disabilities. “The program is excellent and the city provides free transportation, even when she attends an afternoon program that runs till 7 p.m. ”
The program “is partially mainstreamed,” the father, who asked that his real name not be published, said. “Other kids sometimes come into her classroom and vice-versa.”
Tikshoret programs typically teach special needs children a mixture of subjects, from reading and math to personal hygiene and how to purchase something in a store. In some programs, tikshoret students enter regular classrooms two or three times a day, and learn and interact with the kids there.
Avram said his daughter “is talking more than ever and initiating simple conversations. She loves geography.”
While programs like these receive a great deal of praise from parents and some educators, Thomas Gumpel, who heads the Hebrew University’s department of special education, does not view them as inclusive.
Gumpel, who strongly believes that almost all special needs children can thrive in regular classrooms with the proper support, said the Israeli model isn’t based on inclusion.
“Israel isn’t part of the inclusive movement. In the U.S., 75 percent of children with disabilities learn in general education classrooms for 85 percent of their day. In Israel, their center of gravity is separate. Separate classrooms” within a regular school “or separate schools.”
The one exception, Gumpel said, are children with learning disabilities, who are entitled to state-supported remedial help in the regular school system but, due to budget shortfalls, don’t always receive everything they should.
Gumpel said the special education system, like the entire education system, is woefully underbudgeted.
“Education in this country is going to implode,” Gumpel said. “Teachers are notoriously underpaid and poorly trained and 67 percent leave the profession in the first five years of their careers. Reading and math scores are almost the lowest in the world and violence is widespread.”
Gumpel did say that there have been some “major improvements” in the learning disabled system within regular schools.
“There tends to be more focus now on research and paying closer attention to research” and how it can be implemented, the educator said.
The 1988 Special Education Law wasn’t implemented until the mid-1990s, “which tells us that the government didn’t — and doesn’t — see education as an inalienable right,” Gumpel asserted. “The last few lines of the law say that the minister of finance decides every year what part of the law will be implemented.
“The Americans with Disabilities Act isn’t dependent on the good graces of the Treasury Department,” Gumpel noted.
Still, if individual parents demand services, they may very well receive them, Gumpel said.
“Personal negotiations are one of the best things about living in Israel, whether it’s with the education system or the DMV.”
Lisa Barkan, whose 14-year-old son Haim lost his hearing at 3 months, spent days ensuring that Haim’s regular school would be equipped with a special acoustic classroom that muffles noise and maximizes hearing.
Like most deaf children, “Haim has always been mainstreamed because he has normal intelligence,” Barkan said. “To accomplish this, the municipalities have to invest 30,000 to 40,000 shekels ($8,000 to $10,000) to create a classroom with special floors and ceilings, and carpeted walls and sealed doors if needed.”
Barkan attributed many of the strides in special education to “neurotic Jewish mothers” who fight for their children.”
Because money is so scarce, and many, if not most, Israeli schools end each day just before or after 1 p.m., the nonprofit sector has had to fill the void.
This is especially true in Jerusalem, which has the largest number of special needs children not only because it is the largest city, but because very religious Jews and Muslims usually forgo prenatal screening.
When she moved from Brooklyn to Jerusalem four years ago, Beth Steinberg, the mother of a child with Down syndrome, noticed a dearth of after-school programs for “children who fall between the cracks” — children with severe learning disabilities and/or behavioral issues, for example.
“Some children, like those with autism, receive longer school days and are in school almost all year round. Others get out at 12:50.”
So Steinberg and Miriam Avraham, another mother of a child with Down syndrome, started Shutaf, which runs inclusive camps as well as year-round youth programs.
“I think our inclusion program is unique for Israel and the U.S. in that 75 percent of our campers have special needs, and 25 percent are typical kids,” Steinberg said.
Gazing at a mixed group of campers, including disabled junior counselors, playing an Israeli version of Red Light, Green Light on the lawn, Steinberg ventured that “what the kids learn in this non-school setting is at least as important as their in-school experience. It makes a big impact,” she said.