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Special Education’s Technological Revolution: by Uri Ben-Ari, Founder & President, Athena Fund

A boy with a disability and a teacher use an iPad together in a classroom

Idan Degani, a special education student, communicating with his teacher via iPad

Ignacio Estrada, the educational consultant and motivator, once said: “If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.” The Torah put it even more forcefully, “train a youth in his own way, he will not swerve from it even in old age.” (Proverbs 22:6) In 2015, Athena Fund found that while many special education students had iPads, their teachers did not. Therefore, Athena Fund initiated the “Digital Toolbox for Every Special Education Teacher” program, where each teacher receives an iPad along with techno-pedagogical training, a projector, wireless internet for the classroom, and more.

Athena Fund is an Israeli nonprofit dedicated to empowering Israeli teachers by providing them with advanced technological tools and training. Established in 2006, the Fund has several programs: “Digital Toolbox for Every Teacher in Israel” (launched in 2007 and extended to kindergarten teachers in 2012), “Digital Toolbox for Every Science Teacher” (launched 2014), “Digital Toolbox for Every Special Education Teacher” (launched 2015), and “Digital Toolbox for Every English Teacher” (launched 2018).

Athena Fund has made great strides in meeting its goals. So far, Athena has provided digital toolboxes to 28,000 teachers and kindergarten teachers in 172 local authorities across Israel, positively impacting about 650,000 students. These figures include over 9,500 special education school and kindergarten teachers, reaching about 76,000 students. Each digital toolbox includes a laptop or iPad (depending on the program), professional training and other components.

Many special education students, including those on the autism spectrum, have difficulty in communicating, reading and writing, or cannot do so at all. In recent years, it has been shown that by using iPads these students can communicate with their surroundings, improve their learning, and even read and write (watch a unique video).

Thanks to Athena’s special education program, teachers can provide quality education to children with special needs. The program helps students acquire the knowledge and skills needed to make the most of their opportunities and to participate more fully in society.

Providing an iPad to every special education teacher reveals hidden skills among children with special needs. When given the opportunity to communicate through iPads, these children can share concealed abilities, knowledge, feelings and desires, and better realize their potential. The iPad and its special applications allow these students to better cope with their difficulties.

The program allows special education students to engage in meaningful and rewarding learning, since teachers can prepare special curricula for individual students. It enables students with special needs to communicate more effectively with their teachers, peers, families and communities. Significant improvement in hand-eye coordination has also been shown. Using iPads helps reduce educational gaps, improves teaching, makes teaching materials more accessible, and strengthens social and motor skills of special needs students.

A student with a disability and a teacher use an iPad together

Yair Levi, a special education student, at school with his teacher, using iPad

Athena Fund has been recognized and honored in Israel and around the world. In Israel, for example, in 2017 Israel’s former president, Reuven (Rubi) Rivlin, welcomed 16 outstanding special education teachers and kindergarten teachers at a ceremony at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem. At the ceremony, these teachers were presented with certificates of excellence that were initiated and awarded by Athena Fund.

In the international arena, Athena Fund has attained special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Recently, on June 18, 2021, Athena Fund held a special side event as part of the 14th Session of the Conference of States Parties to the UN CRPD (Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities). The event focused on the use of technology for teaching special education students during the COVID-19 pandemic. Speakers included: Prof. Amnon Shashua, Co-Founder & Co-CEO of OrCam Technologies; Noa Tishby, author, actress and film producer in Los Angeles; Yaffa Ben-David, Secretary General of the Israel Teachers Union; Maj. Gen. (res.) Eliezer Shkedi, former Commander of the Israeli Air Force; and myself, among others.

Athena Fund’s strategic partners include the Professional Advancement Fund of the Israel Teachers Union, Bank Massad, Israel’s Ministry of Education, the Ted Arison Family Foundation, the Sylvan Adams Family Foundation, the United Israel Appeal of Canada and others.

There is still much to accomplish in the area of special education. Yet by leveraging its proven experience, dedicated partners and technological capabilities, Athena Fund is steadily fulfilling its mission of empowering the teachers of Israel.

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