Ruderman Prize Profile: Bar-Ilan University’s “Empowerment Program”
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Ruderman Prize Profile: Bar-Ilan University’s “Empowerment Program”

Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer directs Jewish Learning Venture’s Whole Community Inclusion which fosters inclusion of people with disabilities through the Philadelphia Jewish community. She loves writing/editing for “The New Normal” and for WHYY’s newsworks. Her latest book The Little Gate Crasher is a memoir of her Great-Uncle Mace Bugen, a self-made millionaire and celebrity selfie-artist who was 43 inches tall and was chosen for this year’s Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month Book Selections. She’s recently shared an ELI Talk on Standing With Families Raising Kids With Disabilities and has released a journal designed for special needs parents.

Editor's Note: In July, the Ruderman Family Foundation awarded five prizes to agencies across the world that are making the Jewish community into a more inclusive one. The New Normal will profile each of these amazing agencies over the next month. Click here to read previous profiles.

Bar-Ilan University's Empowerment ("Otzmot") Program is among five international winners (and the only Israeli winner) of the third annual Ruderman Prize in Inclusion, honoring organizations worldwide that operate innovative programs and provide services that foster the full inclusion of people with disabilities in their local Jewish community.

"I was elated and most thankful to learn that we have received the Ruderman Prize," said Prof. Hefziba Lifshitz-Vahav, of the Churgin School of Education, who developed and directs the Empowerment Program, which is based on research and theories supporting the premise that adults with intellectual disabilities can tap into latent learning ability.

"The 2006 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities mandates an inclusive education system for all people. At the Churgin School of Education, we are putting this right into action, and I am thankful for the privilege my peers and I have been granted to work in a field that combines scientific research with humanitarian and humanistic values," she added.

The Empowerment Program, of the Lois Alberto Machado Chair for Research on Cognitive Modifiability at Bar-Ilan's Churgin School of Education, offers students with intellectual disabilities an opportunity to study at Bar-Ilan University; those who are capable can earn a bachelor's degree, as well. A three-stage program, Otzmot began in 2012 with 26 students with Down's syndrome in stage one and 12 in stage two.

Students in the first stage study for four academic hours one day a week at the Churgin School of Education, taking courses in developmental psychology, self-advocacy and in using the library and computers. The lecturers are students in the Master's track, where teaching in the Empowerment Program is part of the practicum. The second stage integrates students with intellectual disabilities with typical students in a bachelors-level research seminar with an emphasis in Special Education. Stage three allows qualified students to enroll in two undergraduate courses for which they can earn academic credit for their work.

The program seeks to socially integrate its students through mingling with typical students in and out of class, strengthen the self-image and confidence of students with ID, and change attitudes towards the learning potential of adults with ID at the University and in society as a whole.

The Empowerment Program is the first of its kind in Israel and one of a handful of such programs that exist around the world.

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