Breaking Barriers in the IDF

World Blindness Awareness Month was established for every October to help people understand the realities of living without sight. The World Health Organization estimates that almost 285 million people suffer from blindness or visual impairment worldwide. In the United States about 4 million Americans are blind; in Israel about 27,000 are blind.

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Some people believe that blind people can compensate for their lack of sight with enhanced hearing or other abilities. The musical talents of Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles, both blinded at an early age, are examples of individuals with a disability use their courage to use their God-given talents to succeed.   Then there’s the superhero Daredevil, who is blind but uses his heightened remaining senses to fight crime.

It is commonly assumed that the improvement in the remaining senses is a result of learned behavior; in the absence of vision, blind people are taught to pay attention to auditory cues and learn how to use them more efficiently. But there is mounting evidence that people missing one sense don’t just learn to use the others better. The brain adapts to the loss by giving itself a makeover. If one sense is lost, the areas of the brain normally devoted to handling that sensory information does not go unused — they get rewired and put to work processing other senses.

The story of Daniel Defur reflects how a young blind man got the courage to become an advocate for himself and for people like him.

It began as a modern-day fairytale when the 18-year-old Defur  told Prime Minister Netanyahu about three wishes he had, including a deep desire to serve in the IDF.

In a Facebook post to his two million followers, Netanyahu promised to help Daniel enlist. Shortly afterward, the Prime Minister reached out to Special in Uniform, JNF’s partner that integrates young men and women with disabilities into the IDF.

As a director of Special in Uniform i jumped into action, working with Daniel and the IDF to find the right base and position for him. Daniel is the first blind teenager to enter the program.

Netanyahu welcomed the beaming new soldier to congratulate him on achieving his dream. Daniel, a car enthusiast, was last here in June when Netanyahu fulfilled his first wish by giving him a ride in his specially-modified Audi A8.

Typically, Israeli teens with disabilities receive an automatic deferment at the same time that their able-bodied peers receive draft notices. JNF’s Special in Uniform works to restore the sense of validation that can be lost with an automatic deferment.

The Prime Minister noted the significance of Daniel’s achievement for Israel as a whole. “Most societies see what people lack,” he said, “let’s keep being the country that looks for what every individual has to give. You are showing us all what a true champion looks like.”

As for Daniel’s third wish, Netanyahu told his Facebook fans, “I need your help,” explaining that Daniel dreamed of gaining a circle of friends. “Let’s show him a bit of Israel’s warmth and love,” the PM wrote.

Within a few days, Daniel had maxed out his Facebook allowance with over 2,000 friend requests. He opened a public page and immediately took on the role of Israel’s Friend-Maker-in-Chief, rallying his fans to seek out other teens that are having difficulty building friendships.

Netanyahu expressed admiration, pride and blessing to Daniel, for believing that nothing can stand in the way of one’s will. “We are extremely proud of what you have achieved, and what you will achieve,” he said.

Daniel will serve on an air force base as a fully-enlisted member of the Israel Defense Forces and encourage others like him to join the Army.

About the Author
Lt. Col. (Res.) Tiran Attia is the director of Special in Uniform, a very unique program, operating in partnership with Jewish National Fund (JNF) to integrate young people with autism and other disabilities into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and, in turn, into Israeli society. Tiran was born in Israel in 1967. During a distinguished 28 year career in the IDF, he was IDF tank commander, commander of the IDF's Technology and logistics forces training program for army logistics cadets. His last position in the IDF was as a Commander of the Sar-El program for army volunteers.
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