Hebrew Learning Program Opens Doors for Israel’s Disabled Immigrants

October 4, 2011


Igor K., 40, is an invalid who came to Israel less than one year ago from Luhansk, Ukraine. Since childhood he has struggled with diabetes, and today he can barely walk; with his knee distorted by a 30 degree angle, he is fully reliant on a crutch to support the right side of his body. When asked about his day-to-day challenges in his new homeland, he says his biggest impediment is isolation.

Igor is one of an estimated 125,000 immigrant adults in Israel living with special needs, about one-third of them with severe disabilities. One in three disabled immigrants doesn’t speak Hebrew at all, and two out of three are illiterate in Hebrew.

Israel’s ulpans (intensive Hebrew learning programs for new immigrants) have not been able to accommodate the unique requirements of people like Igor—until now.

Israel Unlimited—a partnership among JDC, the Government of Israel, the Ruderman Family Foundation, and the Ministry of Education that is trying to meet the needs of and empower Israel’s 700,000 adults with disabilities—has launched a new accessible Hebrew ulpan for disabled immigrants in Haifa’s Center for Independent Living with support from AHVA.

Unlike a regular ulpan, which runs five hours a day, five days a week, these classes are held twice a week, three hours at a time, customized to the needs and capacities of people living with physical, emotional, and mental disabilities.

For Igor, the alternative class is a saving grace. Not only are the hours shorter, but the pace is slower and the class is located on the ground floor, easily accessible by a ramp. The teacher is trained in special education and has the added advantage of being well-versed in Russian and Hebrew sign language—the result of growing up with two deaf grandparents.

The class accommodates a variety of different needs and abilities. The instructor teaches one group for beginners and another for the more advanced students. The vision-impaired students record the lessons on tape and can replay them at home, while exercises are available on an interactive web site for students who have limited mobility but are computer literate.

Igor, who is physically unable to attend ulpan regularly, is excited to make it to class whenever he can. He lives with his 66-year-old father, who fears for his son and accompanies him everywhere. This class is Igor’s only outlet to meet and socialize with other people—an opportunity that JDC first gave him in the former Soviet Union many years earlier.

“When I lived in Luhansk, I would go to the Hesed to spend time with other Jews and get medicine and food. Now I’m in Israel and JDC is giving me such important help again,” he says.

Igor hopes improving his Hebrew will help him communicate at the market and speak to doctors about his health concerns when he makes medical visits. He practices diligently at home on a computer program designed to supplement the class time, and he says his Hebrew is starting to improve.

Tatiana S., coordinator of immigrant programs at AHVA, the local non-profit providing the program, is herself an immigrant with disabilities who understands the far-reaching implications of the language barriers that new immigrants face. “Unable to communicate, they are lonely and shy; they don’t know where to turn to get even the most basic information, they don’t know their rights, or how to use the internet. They sit around waiting for someone to help.”

Many of the students are not necessarily new immigrants; some came as many as three, five, or even ten years ago. Learning Hebrew is critical not only to their mental well-being, social inclusion, and independence; it may help some of the immigrants find work and improve their income. Two-thirds of disabled immigrants say they have trouble making ends meet.

Yelena G., 42, is one such case. Yelena, formerly a biology and chemistry professor, came to Israel from Odessa in 2010 but has not been able to work yet. She suffers from Hepatitis C and needs regular periods of rest to recover from spells of exhaustion. She could not keep up with the regular ulpan class but the special program suits her needs.

“Without Hebrew I cannot be a real citizen here. I am limited by my health, as well as my inability to communicate,” she says. In just three months Yelena has already started to improve her Hebrew.

But like Igor, Yelena sees the program as more than a language class. “I feel comfortable here. The teacher and people are really nice and try to help each other in any ways they can. We’ve become friends and provide support for one another.”

With the success of this first accessible Hebrew ulpan in Haifa, the program will be expanded to five more classes and will also include computer training, assistance in realizing entitlements, and psychological support. In addition, the teachers of regular ulpans around Israel will be trained to include new immigrants with disabilities in their classes.

Transformed by the care and warmth she has found, Yelena hopes the program can help others too. “It’s so important that this program continues so people with disabilities can have the opportunity to learn, receive support, and spend time together.”

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