It’s All Personal: In Israel, Promoting Inclusivity for Persons with Disabilities

Israel Unlimited Director Efrat Stern discusses how JDC helps people with disabilities live full, independent lives.

By Efrat Stern - Director, Israel Unlimited | December 8, 2022

As director of Israel Unlimited, Efrat Stern spearheads JDC programs that help people with disabilities increase their autonomy and connect with a larger community.

For Efrat Stern, empowering people with disabilities is all in a day’s work. The director of Israel Unlimited –– JDC’s partnership with The Ruderman Family Foundation and the Government of Israel that works to empower Israelis with disabilities –– she designs and leads initiatives that promote independence for Israelis with disabilities. Just after the world marked the International Day of People with Disabilities, Stern discusses why it’s so important that persons with disabilities live full and empowered lives — not only for their sake, but for society’s as a whole. 

“Educate the child according to his way.” — Book of Proverbs (22:6) 

The importance of tailoring content or interactions to each and every one of us, according to the differences between us, was already understood in Biblical times. This is what is known as “personalization”: the adaptation of content, products, and services to meet the needs and wishes of the individual, with the aim of increasing the added value they gain as a result. Personalization is now a global trend, marking a transition from a generalized approach, in which people are expected to adapt themselves to generic frameworks of activity and consumption, to an individualized approach in which production and marketing are tailored to the individual, focusing on their self-actualization. 

Personalization is now being implemented in many areas of life. Internet sites offer every user personalized information based on their browsing data; video-streaming giants offer viewers programs based on their viewing history; supermarkets offer discounts on products that customers tend to buy often; and social media networks offer content or links to people with similar profiles or interests. These processes, so well understood in the business world, have much to offer others in the social arena as well.  

This past week, the International Day of Persons with Disabilities was marked around the world, highlighting and raising awareness about the right of people with disabilities to full participation in every area of life, and the importance of ensuring they have the same access to equal rights as people without disabilities. In the preamble to the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, which was finalized in 2006 and to which Israel became a signatory in 2021, Paragraph (n) clearly spells out the rights of the individual: “Recognizing the importance for persons with disabilities of their individual autonomy and independence, including the freedom to make their own choices.” Subsequently, Paragraph (o) defines the responsibility of states to facilitate the active participation of people with disabilities in decision-making: “Considering that persons with disabilities should have the opportunity to be actively involved in decision-making processes about policies and programs, including those directly concerning them.” 

A JDC staff member visits with a client as part of JDC Israel Unlimited’s Independent Housing Program.

In effect, then, the Convention demands that people with disabilities are given person-centered services that focus on their individual functioning, needs, and wishes, and not on their disabilities. It also emphasizes the importance of the participation of people with disabilities in their communities, and of maximizing independence. These are the core values that form the basis of JDC’s Israel Unlimited partnership. 

In 2014–2015, Israel Unlimited undertook a year-long learning process on person-centered services, with the aim of gaining expertise in the elements of this individualized approach and of assessing how it could be applied in Israel. We also held international workshops and conferences on this issue; coordinated delegations abroad with policymakers, professionals, and people with disabilities; and ran experimental pilot programs in the field. 

One of the products of these processes was the development of pilot programs using the person-centered approach, such as the “Smart Homes” program, which provides personalized technological solutions to improve the quality of life and independence of people with disabilities. According to professional literature, technological solutions adapted to the needs and environment of a person with disabilities increase their independence and ability to participate in society. Such solutions also reduce the need for supportive services and lowered the overall cost of treatment (World Health Organization, 2011).  

Smart Homes developed a new service approach that combines an AI-powered digital platform with personalized service from a technology coordinator who helps the individual select, purchase, and implement suitable solutions. These technologies can include smart locks, a smartphone app that lets you operate various electrical appliances, and more. According to the evaluation study accompanying the program, 93% of participants during the first three years reported that the technologies provided were highly suited to their needs and that they continued to use them over time; 89% said that there was an improvement with regard to the goals they defined; 86% reported a stronger sense of independence and self-confidence, and 73% said that they were now able to do by themselves things they were not able to do previously. Furthermore, 72% of caregivers reported that participants had become less dependent on them (from a first draft of the program evaluation study, Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute). In another important program outcome, technological solutions that were installed in residential homes as part of the program have made it possible to do without a night counselor, giving residents more independence and providing extremely significant savings for the system as a whole. 

Smart Homes is one program within the Personalization LSI (large-scale initiative) that we at Israel Unlimited are leading, together with our partners in government (the Ministry of Welfare and Social Security, the Ministry of Health, and the Ministry of Education) and in the field (Beit Issie Shapiro and Atvisor), and as part of our strategic partnership with the Ted Arison Family Foundation. We define an LSI as a complementary and synchronized collection of activities designed to have a targeted impact at both the individual and the systemic level, and which creates social and economic value. An LSI can include, among other elements, developing programs and services, developing digital and technological solutions for creating impact, disseminating knowledge and skills that change attitudes and ideas, and actions that promote and shape public policy. 

The Personalization LSI aims to promote the autonomy and freedom of choice of every person with disabilities in Israel. Our guiding premise is that services that are more personally adapted are more effective, both for the individual and for the system. For the individual, personalized services offer a more precise response to their needs and wishes, and thus they will only utilize services that are relevant for them. From the perspective of the system, this reduces inefficient use of resources on the operation and management of services that the individual does not need or want. 

Thus, one the one hand, the Personalization LSI addresses the client: creating flexibility in the method of service consumption and in the range of publicly funded services, including those offered for the general public; teaching skills related to self-management and informed decision-making; and providing and disseminating knowledge and tools that support independent selection and consumption of services.  

On the other hand, the LSI also addresses the system as a whole. Implementing the principle of personalization demands substantial changes to the organizational, regulatory, and professional environment—for example, it means creating purchasing mechanisms that support a diverse range of services, offer flexibility in service provision and in transferring between different services, and allow for service provision based on personal choice. It is also necessary to develop new tools and train people in new roles, making knowledge and support available to people with disabilities so that they can independently and autonomously choose the services that suit them best. Furthermore, implementing personalization requires changing attitudes among professionals toward people with disabilities and their capacity to make their own decisions, their right to make mistakes, and so on. And finally, it also means ensuring easy access to information and to rights. 

In recent years, various countries — including Australia, Canada, Britain, Spain, and others — have advanced legislation and practices oriented toward personalization, with a focus on providing services that maximize the independence and participation in society of people with disabilities, alongside criteria relating to the quality of services and their economic efficiency (Yabo, M., Nagar Eidelman, R., Hercowitz-Amir, A., & Barlev, L., Legislation for the Provision of Social Services for People with Disabilities: An International Review, Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, 2021). 

The Rehabilitation in the Community of Persons with Mental Disabilities Law (2000) and this year’s Social Services for Persons with Disabilities Law (2022) demonstrate the progress made in Israel in the development and adaptation of services and in changing attitudes toward people with disabilities. These laws are based on a person-centered approach and on principles of choice and autonomy, and they have strongly reinforced the values of choice, independence, and autonomy, creating an important window of opportunity. 

It is vital that in this future reality, people with disabilities have equal opportunity to participate in society.

However, there are still significant gaps in the definitions, interpretations, and practices that flow from this legislation, and which affect 17% of the population in the State of Israel—the estimated current share of people with disabilities (Barlev, L, Pur, Y., & Oren, Y. (2020): Selected statistical data. Jerusalem, Israel: The Ministry of Justice, the Commission for Equal Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and Myers – JDC – Brookdale Institute). Personalization promotes a brave discourse relating to moral and social values, which in turn catalyzes the development of services and policy. This discourse can shape the real world, as today’s interpretations of independence, autonomy, accessibility, and other vital concepts will determine tomorrow’s reality. 

It is vital to ensure that in this future reality, people with disabilities will have an equal opportunity to participate in society and to exercise their natural right to independence and choice. Ensuring the participation in society of every man and woman with disabilities is not just a question of basic human justice, but also an essential condition for overall socioeconomic advancement and development.  

At this critical moment, we must strive to realize the hidden potential offered by the full integration and inclusion of people with disabilities in society. The current circumstances represent a unique opportunity for building a more equal and inclusive society. We must not let this opportunity pass us by.  

Efrat Stern has extensive experience developing, piloting, and managing programs for the elderly and people with disabilities, including Supportive Housing and Supportive Communities. For the past four years, she has been a key part of the Israel Unlimited management team. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Political Science from Tel Aviv University and a master’s degree in Management of Non-Profit and Community Organizations from the Schwartz Program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. As the director, Efrat leads JDC’s Israel Unlimited partnership to generate social impact and systemic solutions, develop models and pilot programs, and promote equal opportunities for independent living and the participation of people with disabilities in society.

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