David Zettel (Courtesy) Courtesy
David Zettel (Courtesy)

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Through these unique Israeli programs, young adults with special needs serve their country, while building confidence and developing valuable life skills.

By Tsivya Fox-Dobuler, United With Israel

Israel’s military has a unique secret weapon: two programs that integrate people with special needs into the army. Roim Rachok (Seeing Far Into the Future) and Special in Uniform have changed perceptions of disabled people and challenged assumptions about their capabilities.

“These programs help youth find their potential and develop their passions while building healthy interactions,” Miriam Hughes, an occupational therapist for Roim Rachok, told United With Israel. “The programs help people with disabilities to feel part of society and contribute in meaningful ways to their country while the army greatly benefits from the unique skills of these soldiers. It’s a win-win situation.”

Hughes was hired to teach soldiers with autism tools for work, life skills and techniques for healthy human interactions.

Roim Rachok

Since its founding in 2012, Roim Rachok has helped hundreds of young adults on the autism spectrum by helping them integrate into the IDF, often via intelligence positions.

People with autism can have razor-sharp focus and the ability to look at computer screens for long spans of time. This capability allows them to catch minute changes on surveillance monitors, identifying explosives, underground tunnels and enemy activity that the average person might miss.

Yehuda Rosen, who has a condition called pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), has been in the program since last summer.

Roim Rachok is a marvelous organization,” Denise Rosen, Yehuda’s mother told United With Israel. “They guide both the parent and child until the child enters the IDF and then continue to provide therapies to ensure success.”

Rosen said that the army fully cooperates with the program, recognizing its value.

She said that Yehuda, who works in electronics for the IDF, has learned a profession along with life skills that have increased his confidence and the chance to successfully enter the workforce.

“And, Yehuda loves wearing his IDF uniform,” Rosen added.

Graduates of the program are sought out by companies such as Intel, for their invaluable and unique expertise.

Special in Uniform

While Roim Rachok works with high-functioning individuals with autism, Special in Uniform, founded in 2014, helps hundreds of youths with physical and mental disabilities volunteer with the IDF, while helping them acclimate to adult life in general society.

“My son, David, who is mentally disabled, was a soldier for two years in the program for people with special needs,” Harry Zettel shared with United With Israel. “He felt so much pride to be wearing an IDF uniform and contribute to the country just like his brother and sister had before him.”

David was tasked twice a week with cleaning his base, stocking shelves with supplies, performing manual labor, in addition to other tasks, explained the elder Zettel.

“People with disabilities want to contribute to society in the same way as most people,” said Zettel. “Israel is the only country in the world that takes inclusion all the way to its army. This allows everyone to feel that they truly belong.”

In February, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Chair of the President’s Commission on Intellectual Disabilities Chris Neeley visited Israel’s Palmachim Air Force Base. They met IDF soldiers with autism and physical and mental disabilities.

Friedman praised Israel’s efforts, which “show the incredible value of every human life and what people can accomplish with some care and attention.” The ambassador said that he believes that Neeley will work hard to bring the program to the US army.

These programs fit Israel’s global reputation for innovation. As more people look at Israel’s success in including people with special needs into “the best army in the world,” as well as the workforce, the country will again be recognized as “a light unto the nations.”

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