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People with disabilities to tour the Holy Land

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Andria Spindel

As society becomes more inclusive, disabled Canadians are getting out and about more – and not just to office buildings and restaurants.

Some are obtaining passports and traveling abroad. March of Dimes Canada (MoD), which provides a wide range of services to people with physical disabilities throughout the country, has arranged junkets to foreign destinations for its clients, many of them on cruise ships.

It’s all part of the agency’s goal of ensuring that disabled Canadians can participate as fully as possible in all aspects of life.

During a recent visit to Israel, MoD CEO Andria Spindel toured facilities that cater to people with disabilities. Spindel was impressed with the advances Israel has made in supporting the disabled and normalizing their lives. She wondered if disabled Canadians would benefit from a trip to Israel, to see the sites that able-bodied visitors see, while also witnessing Israel’s innovations in accessibility first hand.

Apparently, a similar thought occurred to Bryan Keshen, the president and CEO of the Reena Foundation, a Jewish organization that works with the disabled, and together, they came up with the Canada-Israel Inclusion Mission.

In partnership with the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital in Toronto, the mission is slated to depart for Israel for eight days on Feb. 12.

So far, close to 20 people have registered for the trip. Organizers require a 20-person minimum to make it financially viable, but there are contingencies to accommodate as many as 40 participants, Spindel and Keshen said.

The mission is open to people with all sorts of disabilities, whether they be physical or cognitive, multiple sclerosis or infirmity experienced by those of advanced age, Spindel said.

In addition, the trip is being pitched to researchers, policymakers and practitioners who run programs for the disabled, Keshen said.

Participants, including some family members and assistants, will enjoy an itinerary much like that offered to other tourists, including visits to the holy sites of Jerusalem, tours of historic sites, trips to accessible museums and a stay in a Druze home in Daliyat Al Carmel.

They will also visit several agencies that cater to people with disabilities and witness some of the Israeli innovations in the field that are helping improve peoples’ lives. Among them will be a visit to Beit Issie Shapiro in Raanana, which is a leader in developing therapies and services for the disabled. They will also tour ReWalk Robotics in Yokneam, which developed an exoskeleton that allows people to walk, as well as the Israel Guide Dog Center in Beit Oved.

Israel4All, an Israeli tour agency that specializes in arranging travel for people with disabilities, is co-ordinating the itinerary on the Israeli side, Spindel said.

A trip to Israel is particularly significant because “Israel is incredibly inclusive,” Spindel continued. “It’s important to note that they work very hard on accessibility and inclusion.”

“This is really to acquaint Canadians with Israel and the experience of Israelis with inclusiveness services and programs and see if we can learn from each other,” Keshen said.

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To date, people with disabilities have visited Israel on organized tours and researchers and policymakers have gone to attend conferences and tour Israeli facilities, but the proposed trip will bring the two groups together for the first time, Keshen said.

March of Dimes’ partnership with Reena is a natural outgrowth of a four-year relationship that has seen the two agencies co-operate on various disability issues, and MoD has placed six people in a Reena residence at the Schwarz Reisman campus in Toronto, Spindel said.

Holland Bloorview has also co-operated with MoD on joint programs in the past, including youth retreats that teach personal care, problem solving and transitional planning to young adults, in order to help them become more independent, she said.

“We want to make it possible for families to bring a teen or adult child to travel, who would otherwise not be able to go. We will provide people for support,” she added.

Spindel said the mission is open to people from all backgrounds and religions. A Pakistani Muslim member of MoD’s board of directors has already signed on. “He’s very curious to see Israel,” she said.