Special in Uniform: Israeli model of inclusion

One of the lesser-known facts about former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir is that she had a granddaughter born with Down syndrome in 1950.
September 8, 2015

One of the lesser-known facts about former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir is that she had a granddaughter born with Down syndrome in 1950. She never publicly acknowledged the child, and, in fact, encouraged her children to place the granddaughter in a state institution, which was common practice at the time. Yet in her autobiography, Meir talked about her dream that one day Israelis with special needs would be part of the general Jewish community. If Meir were still alive, she would be able to see that dream come true with Israel’s Special in Uniform program, now operating in partnership with Jewish National Fund (JNF). 

In Israel, the vast majority of typical high school graduates serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) or, as an alternative, do National Service. But young people with intellectual and developmental disabilities aren’t eligible to serve, and because of that, they miss out on what is the probably the most normalizing experience of Israeli adulthood. The program Special in Uniform fills this gap. Originally started by a community-based parent support group, the program offers a comprehensive post-high school experience that lasts one to two years and includes a wide range of stipend-paying jobs at military bases and offices.

The program starts while the participants are still in special-education high schools by teaching them independent living skills. Under a joint program with Israel’s Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Joint Distribution Committee, students first spend days in an apartment near the school, and later on, nights as well, learning how to grocery shop, ride a bus, and take care of their own daily routines.

Next, in collaboration with the Ministry of Education and the IDF, they volunteer several days a week in the army as part of their school curriculum. After graduating from high school, they enter a four-day military pre-induction training program called Gadna, and after that, a job placement in the military. Some prepare gas mask kits or work at military stores, printing shops, kitchens and many other jobs. There are some participants on the autism spectrum who work with intelligence units, analyzing visual images from satellites and drones. Special in Uniform participants also do a modified version of the traditional “Israel Trek” hike, which culminates in participants receiving a beret, similar to all other IDF units.

I recently met with Yossi Kahana, director of the JNF Task Force on Disabilities and Lt. Col. Tiran Attia, who is now the project manager of Special in Uniform. Attia managed the IDF’s Sar-El program for overseas army volunteers for 10 years, and in that capacity, witnessed firsthand the dedication and high work ethic of volunteers with disabilities. When he was recruited by project founder Maj. Gen. Gabi Ophir to head up the program, Attia agreed, drawing on his positive experiences with Sar-El volunteers with special needs. He said, “The IDF is the only army in the world that has such an inclusive program.”

Since JNF has partnered with the Special in Uniform program, it has grown in size from 100 to 200 participants, with a long waiting list. The charismatic and passionate Attia has a big vision for the program: to quickly ramp up to 1,000 enrolled participants in the next four years. He told me a story about a family who has triplet girls, including one with special needs. After one of the sisters joined an intelligence unit on the Egyptian border and the other was assigned to the navy, the sister with special needs longed to join her sisters “in uniform.” One of the Special in Uniform publicity photos now features those triplets, all smiling broadly, dressed in their khakis. 

The program already is starting to have a ripple effect. Most Israeli students who need special-education services attend segregated schools, away from typical-developing peers. In the Special in Uniform program, not only do the participants with special needs learn how to be part of the larger society, but the typical army troops grow in their understanding of young adults with special needs as well. As one of the staff members says in a JNF video, “Slowly, but surely they become an integral part of the unit.”

When our L.A. Jewish Federation Special Needs Study Mission went to Israel in 2012, seeing this program in action was one of the highlights of our trip. The supervisor of one Special in Uniform participant with Down syndrome said that young adult was an asset to his unit, always arriving at the base each morning on time, with a smile on his face and ready to work.

If you want to learn more about Special in Uniform and also support an excellent community provider of services to adults with disabilities in Los Angeles at the same time, come to the ETTA Gala on Nov. 19 at the Beverly Wilshire, where they will honor Special in Uniform with its Champions Award. Two commanding officers and two soldiers will be present to accept the award. ETTA’s Champions Award goes to a person or organization that champions the cause of people with disabilities — in this case, including and asserting the rights of people with disabilities to serve in the military, especially in Israel, where service is an integral part of culture and life. For more information, visit etta.org.

Attia said he has bigger plans than just adding more participants to the program; he thinks the long-term goal of expanding the Special in Uniform program is to create a more inclusive Israeli society and points to the many Israeli employers now hiring workers who have disabilities, such as the giant Israel Electric Corp., which already has hired 250 workers with disabilities. Pending legislation in the Knesset would require 5 percent of all business workforces to be people who have disabilities. “Special in Uniform,” he said, “will ultimately change the social face of Israel.”

Michelle K. Wolf writes the Jews and Special Needs blog for the Jewish Journal. Find it at jewishjournal.com. 

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