Feature Stories

Pioneering Services For Israelis with Disabilities

For Tzipi (Nechama) Zipper, the February 2011 twist of fate that left her wheelchair-bound with a chronic pain condition did not sap her spirit.

Instead, it turned the indomitable 25-year-old into something of a superhero, defying stereotypes and overcoming barriers every day with boundless enthusiasm and the help of JDC’s Centers for Independent Living (CIL), community-based multi-service centers for Israelis with disabilities.

Originally from Colorado, Tzipi moved to Israel on her own at the age of 15 in 2004, bravely serving her adopted country in 2009's Operation Cast Lead before being discharged in the summer of 2010.

Tzipi soon became the first woman to pass a high-level training course to work at selected security checkpoints. Sadly, it was at one such checkpoint that, during an accident, a car hit Tzipi. Though her injuries appeared relatively minor at first, the formerly agile young woman soon found herself requiring the use of a wheelchair.

Alone in Israel and faced with a traumatic life change, it was about a year after her accident when Tzipi discovered a new family at JDC's CIL in Tel Aviv, located just a few blocks away from her apartment.

“I loved the concept of people with disabilities helping people with disabilities,” she said. “It wasn’t social workers coming to take care of the disabled. It was very empowering. It was people with disabilities working in careers, with degrees, being role models, being the type of people you would want to go and get help from.”

Operated by and for people with disabilities, CIL staff and volunteers offer services to people from all religions, backgrounds and with all types of disabilities — physical, visual, hearing, and learning disabilities, as well as clients with mental illness or cognitive impairment.

“It shows people with disabilities that they can do so much more, that they have so much more than their disability, that they have so much potential,” Tzipi said of the CIL. “In spite of my disability, I really have many other abilities, and it really showed me that.”

Tzipi said she was struck by the diversity and empowerment within the CIL community: a deaf volunteer coordinator, a double-amputee peer counselor with two prosthetic limbs, a director in a wheelchair, a blind peer counselor.

“That entire idea of integration … doesn’t necessarily come naturally in Israel,” she said. “It’s a really big problem there and a very big barrier.”

CILs work to raise awareness and create social change toward equal access and opportunity for people with disabilities. JDC has established CILs across Israel in a number of locations including Jerusalem, Beersheva, Tel Aviv, and Haifa. Each of these CILs services about 1,500 individuals per year.

Tzipi said her experiences and her work with JDC’s programs for people with disabilities in Israel have changed the way she looks at the world.

“I don’t think people with disabilities need the sympathy that I may have given people with disabilities before I was in the situation myself,” she said. “People need to see people with disabilities as people with abilities, to see how much they have to gain by associating themselves, by helping, by agreeing to receive help from people with disabilities.”

JDC’s approach hinges on that thesis — a critical and rare philosophy in Israel, Tzipi said.

“I’m really hoping to break down those stigmas and to show everyone, whether they’re American or Israeli or European, show them how much they have to gain by making the world more inclusive for people with disabilities,” she said. “It’s amazing what JDC is doing with that in a place where it’s brand-new.”

The programs discussed here are generously supported by United Jewish Federation of Tidewater, the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond, and the Ruderman Family Foundation.

Tags for this story: Youth / Young Adults, Disabilities

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