Doing Ourselves A Favor

It’s a mistake to think that helping the disabled develop their potential is a favor to the disabled. It’s a favor — no, an imperative — for their community and society at large.

A moving example out of Israel is the story of Ronen Argalazi, who is featured in this week’s Inyan magazine.

At age 17 he was in a motorcycle accident that severely injured his spinal cord, leaving him a quadriplegic. Someone else might have sunk into despair at the prospect of being so young and facing a life of disability, limitation and dependence.

But to his credit, he refused to stay in a place of self-pity. He took a course in computer graphics and then, after observing a friend painting with oil, started drawing by holding paintbrushes in his mouth.

“I felt I discovered a new life,” he said. “This new activity gave me something important to do and a lot of confidence in myself.”

Ronen, now 48, has been accepted to the worldwide Mouth and Foot Painting Artists organization and is one of the most productive mouth artists in the country, with his work being featured in calendars, greeting cards and placemats, all over the world.

The Israel Defense Forces has also demonstrated their recognition of the abilities of challenged populations with a program called “Seeing Far.”

The program involves training soldiers on the autism spectrum to serve in an intelligence unit called 9900, deciphering photos taken by military satellites. The decipherers are in charge of interpreting and decoding these 3-D images — a job that requires constant attention to detail and long hours of work — which individuals on the spectrum have been proven to be extraordinarily good at.

Dan Korkowsky, a superstar in the unit, was honored last week at the opening ceremony of Israel’s Independence Day celebrations, together with the trailblazers who developed the Waze navigation system and the Iron Dome missile-defense system that helped save countless lives during last summer’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza.

“Dan played an active role in Operation Protective Edge,” said L., his commander. “His deciphering of photos from the field was crucial. He completed his work in less time than he was given.”

“Seeing Far” is win-win. Dan, who didn’t speak until the age of five, has earned the enormous satisfaction of knowing that he is contributing to Israel’s defense. The job in the army has forced him to rent an apartment near his base, and to learn how to use the buses to get to work on time.

“They accepted me beautifully here,” he told Yediot Aharonot of the soldiers and commanders in his unit. “Most of the time I’m in front of the computer and like to be alone. Even when the others go to the dining room, I’m alone. Once, I wanted to be someone else, someone without my problems. But today I think more positively and try to cope with things as they are. I am who I am.”

As far as the army is concerned, the investment in the program has paid off handsomely. “Taken as a whole, which is difficult, because all of them are different, their motivation and desire means that they sit and work at a pace that not all decipherers could maintain,” says the officer in charge of the program.

This is not the IDF’s first positive experience with autistic manpower. A number of operational successes have been accredited to autistic soldiers who dedicated their talents to specific intelligence units.

The message is that we shortchange ourselves, not just those on the autistic spectrum and their families, by failing to recognize their talents. The key is to see people — not “conditions” or “syndromes” — who are works of art of our Creator and who therefore have what to give, if only we will be wise enough to see their abilities, not just their disabilities.

Ronen and Dan are inspirations. They haven’t let disabilities become liabilities. To the contrary, they have found ways to accept themselves as they are and to discover strengths that give their lives meaning and improve the lives of others.

Our obligation, as a community, is to provide the resources that allow for this self-discovery. If we fulfill this obligation properly, we benefit from their very real contribution to society and from the knowledge that we have brought nachas ruach to the Ribbono shel Olam by helping all His creations reach their potential.