Across the globe, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) is making life more meaningful for people with disabilities. Whether it’s a blind, 88-year-old Romanian Jew or a 17-year-old Tunisian with Down syndrome, JDC’s high-impact programs—found in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and the former Soviet Union—ensure better lives for the disabled by concentrating on education, rehabilitation, advocacy and job-training.

JDC is directly addressing the needs of the disabled, fostering understanding in communities where they are stigmatized and building platforms encouraging independent living for them,” said Steven Schwager, JDC’s Chief Executive Officer. “By focusing on vulnerable populations throughout the world—like the elderly, children at risk, and immigrants—JDC and its local partners have ensured that vital services and support reach such groups. Similarly, we are now reaching disabled people in places where help is difficult to find.”

In locations where the disabled are stigmatized, enormous barriers to treatment, education, and employment are often found. Therefore, JDC programs address a variety of challenges and seek to fully involve the disabled, local and government agencies, and other organizations to create viable solutions ensuring better care. Additionally, JDC’s work fosters life skills that are critical to people with special needs.

Recently in Israel, JDC, together with the Boston-based Ruderman Family Foundation, and the Government of Israel launched a multi-million dollar partnership to benefit Israel’s 697,000 disabled adults. The partnership seeks to advance the independent living and integration of disabled populations into general Israeli society, promote inter-ministerial cooperation, and the pooling of resources to ensure the needs of the disabled are more fully met.

Aside from this partnership, JDC’s global work for the disabled includes:

The UTAIM Therapeutic and Vocational Training Farm on the Tunisian island of Djerba. Purchased thanks to a substantial grant from JDC for the Tunisian Union to Aid the Mentally Impaired (UTAIM), the 11,000 square meter farm offers employment opportunities and vocational-training to Arab Muslims, Jews, and Berbers who are mentally impaired. The facility specializes in sheep husbandry, poultry-farming and other agricultural activities, and also provides animal-assisted therapy to local disabled school children. The multi-national, multi-faith project initiated by JDC now brings Jewish, Christian, and Muslim donors from America, England, France, Switzerland, and Tunisia into a joint partnership serving developmentally-disabled children and young adults in Djerba.

Since 2008, JDC has worked with the Jewish community of Morocco and the Wheelchair Foundation to send shipments of wheelchairs for distribution throughout the country to aid its physically-disabled population (10% of the general populace). To date, JDC in partnership with the Moroccan Jewish community has distributed 1,000 wheelchairs to those in need and donated 30 sports wheelchairs, for disabled athletes, to Amicale Marocaine Handicapes (AMH), a Moroccan NGO that provides support and specialized services to 23,000 disabled people.

In addition, JDC and AMH are currently equipping a mobile outreach team to ensure that disabled people in need living in distant villages with no access to clinics in Casablanca receive appropriate orthopedic appliances.

JDC’s Tikvah and Yedid Programs for Jewish children and young adults with special needs in Eastern Ukraine are specially-tailored to meet the needs of these young people, and their families, in a country where disabilities are severely stigmatized. Among other things, the Tikvah program provides aqua therapy and hippo therapy for the children, as well as free legal services and job placement courses for their families. The Yedid program offers vocational and professional skill-building programs for disabled young adults, allowing them to achieve economic independence, integrate into the community, and increase their self-esteem.

Both programs are run through the local Hesed (Jewish community centers) and focus on rehabilitation, special education, and social and cultural programming. Psychologists, rehabilitation therapists, and social workers also provide other crucial services. The programs, funded by London-based World Jewish Relief, currently operate in Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporozhye, Krivoy Rog, Donetsk, and Lugansk, serving a total of 193 children and 95 young adults.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, thanks to the generosity of Dr. Alfred Bader of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, JDC is able to sponsor the JFund. The JFund disseminates non-interest bearing loans for up to five years to finance NGOs or small business investment plans that create commercially viable jobs for the physically or mentally disabled (and/or socially marginalized). First established in 2005 in cooperation with Sarajevo Jewish community’s humanitarian aid organization, La Benevolencija, this loan program—now mostly self-sustaining with loan capital exceeding $500,000—has assisted over 30 different non-sectarian projects, such as a printing plant, a laser engraving service, flower cultivation, and a lake resort. It has created new employment opportunities for more than 90 disabled people, including patients with muscular dystrophy, paraplegics, and those with hearing and mental impairments.

A new half-hour documentary film, highlighting what these opportunities mean to the individual beneficiaries, is now available on request. “Lavoro Ergo Sum”. (“I work, therefore I am” in Bosnian with English subtitles)

For Israel’s multi-ethnic disabled population, JDC has, among other things, established two Centers for Independent Living (CIL) and Masira (“journey” in Arabic), an initiative to improve the lives of disabled Israeli-Arabs. The Center for Independent Living in Be’er Sheva, for example, was established in September 2007. The facility serves 1,500 people with disabilities, including 500 Bedouins, annually in Israel’s Negev region. It offers services such as peer counseling, advocacy, and information on government benefits for the disabled. In addition, it is fully managed and operated by people with disabilities and lobbies locally and nationally on behalf of the disabled in Israel. Its director, Dalia Zilberman, was responsible for convincing the mayor of Be’er Sheva to ensure that employers in the city included the disabled in local industry. And recently, the CIL expanded its facility to include an internet café and restaurant which is mainly populated by students, some of them disabled, from nearby Ben Gurion University.

Since 2006, Masira has made a deep impact in Israel’s Arab communities. Created to help overcome the societal stigmas Israeli-Arabs face in their own communities, and in general society, the program now operates 15 programs in 20 towns and villages for a variety of disabled Israeli Arabs. One of the most successful Masira initiatives is its program for deaf Bedouin girls, designed especially to address the high levels of hearing impairment among Bedouins in Israel’s south. JDC, recognizing that the young women are often deemed unfit for education and family life because of their disability, sought to help them overcome these challenges. Since 2008, the program has created a number of special educational and leadership training seminars, run by other deaf women, for the region’s deaf Bedouin girls. Additionally, eight deaf peer leaders, trained by these programs, were instrumental in helping 70 deaf students in local schools. The program has also convened regional meetings to help hearing-impaired and deaf Bedouins organize and advocate on their own behalf.

Transferring the practical and programmatic experience working with the deaf in Israel, the Jewish community of Turkey, along with local NGOs and the Turkish government established a training program in Turkey for professionals, teachers, and families of the hearing impaired and deaf. Established in 2007, this unique regional exchange—which brings Israeli experts to Turkey and Turks to Israel for training—ensures the early detection and rehabilitation of children suffering from deafness or hearing impairment. By creating a structure where families and professionals can cooperate, the program ensures the successful integration of these children in Turkish society. JDC and the Israel foreign ministry provide technical assistance.