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The Bar-Ilan University Empowerment Program in Israel was one of five global winners of the 2014 Ruderman Prize in Inclusion. Professor Hefziba Lifshitz-Vahav, head of the program, sat down with us for a brief interview. Below is part one of the interview where she discusses the inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities in higher education.
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Professor Lifshitz-Vahav, you are an expert in the integration of people with intellectual disabilities in higher education. What successes you have had and what challenges have you faced?
We have succeeded in changing the perception that adults with intellectual disabilities (ID) could not learn academic material. They were previously considered as having low capacity. This raises a number of questions about the scientific definitions of ID. Are ID assessment tools appropriate? Are there abilities not recognized by current assessments?
The challenge is to bring more and more adults with intellectual disabilities into the academic world. Another challenge is to ensure that the law provides people with ID to access higher education. Special education schools operate until the age of 21. After that, people with ID move to work in various plants/sheltered workshops but this does not address the cognitive side. According to the theory of “compensatory age” I developed, intelligence and cognitive abilities of people with ID can advance and develop well and could be modified into old age. So in the spirit of the UN CRPD, people with ID should be able to learn throughout the life cycle in order to realize their hidden potential. They must not stop learning at an early age but be allowed to continue developing their cognitive abilities.
What are the opportunities for integration in Israel’s higher education institutions?
In Israel, the program I head- “Otzmot”- Empowerment operates within the Education Department at Bar-Ilan University, which was the first university in Israel to open an academic program tailored for adults with intellectual disabilities. The project is in its third year and includes three stages:
Stage 1) Adapted academic enrichment- A group of students with intellectual disabilities attend the university’s School of Education for four hours of study. The courses include Intro to Psychology and self-advocacy.
Stage 2) Inclusion in a B.A. research seminar. Another group of students study the same above courses but they are included in a B.A. research seminar with ‘regular’ students. There is reciprocal learning between the two groups.
Stage 3) Full integration of seven students with intellectual disabilities in regular courses. The students are registered through the university as auditors and they can receive academic credit if they pass the exams and perform the class’s tasks. This program is the first of its kind in the world.
Hefziba Lifshitz-Vahav is an Associate professor in the School of Education, Bar-Ilan University in Israel. She established and heads the new MA program in Intellectual Disability (ID) which is the first of its kind in Israel. She holds the Lois Alberto Machado Chair for Research on Cognitive Modifiability and the Development of Intelligence in the School of Education of Bar-Ilan University and the Baker center for study and development of infants and children with ID. Her research area focuses mainly on lifelong learning in a population with ID as well as adulthood and aging of individuals with ID. She is the head of Empowerment project: three stages of inclusion in the academic world for adults with ID.