Bar-Ilan University's groundbreaking Empowerment ("Otzmot") Program is enabling six high-functioning young adults with intellectual disabilities (ID) to pursue a once inconceivable dream – BA degree studies. Thrice weekly they come to the BIU campus to attend university courses alongside their non-challenged peers. "When Otzmot first started it was a revolutionary idea that individuals with ID could go on learning," observes Chani, whose daughter Ruti – a veteran in the program – has Down syndrome (DS). "People thought there was a limit to what those with ID can achieve. But we can really see that this whole program has made her smarter. Otzmot has moved Ruti and her classmates up a very big notch."
Since its founding in 2012, the three-staged Otzmot Program, of the Machado Chair for Research on Cognitive Modifiability and the Development of Intelligence at BIU's Churgin School of Education, has brought a total of 200 young adults with ID to campus to gain knowledge relevant to their daily lives, community and society. Currently there are some 50 participants in all three stages of the program, which is the first of its kind in Israel and one of a select few worldwide. Awarded the 2014 Ruderman Prize in Inclusion, the program works to socially integrate individuals with ID, strengthening their self-image and confidence, while changing attitudes toward their learning potential at university and in society as a whole.
"Environmental intervention can improve and cause significant change in cognitive functioning of adults with ID," explains Prof. Hefziba Lifshitz-Vahav, Otzmot founding director, Machado Chair incumbent, and head of the MA ID track in Special Education at BIU. With a research focus on life-learning of individuals with ID, she has developed "The Compensation Age Theory" in a population of ID (Lifshitz-Vahav, 2015). "Especially in adulthood, it is possible to alter the level of cognitive functioning of people with ID because their greater maturity and cumulative life experience helps them to benefit more from intervention."
Otzmot Stage One participants come once a week to BIU's Churgin School of Education for four hours of studies on subjects close to their heart, including psychology, sociology, and self-advocacy. Stage Two participants attend a BA research seminar, Lifelong Learning of Individuals with Disability, and conduct research together with university students. Stage Three participants – communicative young adults with mild ID – are fully integrated into undergraduate courses. The current group of six has thus far earned 32 out of 64 academic credit required for the BA degree, which they hope to obtain in another two years. They enjoy their curriculum which includes courses on computers, Israeli society, autism, cerebral palsy, history of music, and Bible, as well as preparatory sessions to better equip them for class and exams.
Otzmot students take special pride in their progress. "The program has helped me improve my reading, vocabulary and the way I express myself," notes Ruti, who lectures on DS at schools around Israel. Ruti's recent request to re-do an exam shows how motivated she is to achieve. "The studies inspire me and teach me how to deal with my surroundings," relays Lior, a young woman with Williams syndrome. She says the autism course has helped her to get along better with her roommate, who is on the autism spectrum. Henya relates that "after seven years in the program, I have more friends and am more accepting of others and their difficulties." Enthusiastic about the special ed courses, Oded, who has DS and was recognized for his outstanding IDF service, says “I highly recommend Otzmot – it’s helping me to develop." Others mention the devoted program staff, including Otzmot coordinator, Dr. Shoshana Nissim, connecting with fellow university students, and improved social status and confidence. ”I used to be very introverted and sensitive,” says Tommy. “Now I tell my friends that I learn at university, and they say, 'wow!'"
Prof. Hefziba Lifshitz-Vahav, who received all three of her academic degrees at BIU, explains that Otzmot aims to change attitudes in academia. "Integrating students with ID on campus has a visible effect. Our MA candidates who work with them also grow," she notes.
"Academic studies can create career and business opportunities for people with ID which we didn't think about in the past. We train them as assistants to librarians and graphic designers, to work in high tech and other areas. We also work to expand their academic education beyond their specializations. Otzmot is a real revolution that may have repercussions for years to come," stresses Lifshitz-Vahav.
Echoing the sentiments of other parents, Chani says: "We really appreciate that Hefziba and BIU have taken on this challenging study program which is making a huge difference in our children's daily lives. It's just amazing – they are really learning!"
For more info on the Otzmot Program click here
For more info on BIU's Churgin School of Education click here