“Hello, my name is Guy, and I am legally blind. I am here today to facilitate this workshop with you on visual impairments. Before I tell you my story, I will give you a blindfold to put on your eyes. Please keep it on while you listen to my story.”

This is how Guy Maman begins interactive workshops in Israeli schools and workplaces through the program Roim Acheret (Seeing Differently).

One blind and one visually impaired workshop leader invite participants to try walking with a white cane, reading braille or small print, using a smartphone, locating one another, or pouring water from one cup to another — all while blindfolded or wearing special glasses to simulate degrees and forms of visual impairment.

Guy Maman leads a Seeing Differently workshop in a school. Photo courtesy of Ofek Liyladenu

Seeing Differently was founded in 2007 by “alumni” of Ofek Liyladenu (Hebrew for “Our Children’s Horizon”), the Israel National Association of Parents of Children with Visual Impairments, established in 1997 as an advocacy, rights and information organization whose programs enable children and youth to achieve their full potential in the mainstream.

These young adults, aged 20 to 30, give sighted people a taste of their everyday challenges and triumphs.

Seeing Different workshop participants feeling a braille book. Photo courtesy of Ofek Liyladenu

“In Ofek Liyladenu we believe in the power of the children. From an early age we give them a toolbox of emotional and physical skills and knowledge, equipping them with self-confidence and support,” says Ofek Liyladenu Executive Director Yael Weisz-Rind.

“When they are young, the parents represent them but when the children grow up they want to represent themselves. They want to change minds and hearts about how people perceive people with visual impairment or blindness.”

Based on conversations at meetings of the International Council for Education of People with Visual Impairment (ICEVI), Weisz-Rind believes Seeing Differently is unique.

She was invited to present a paper about Seeing Differently at a June 10 joint conference of the ICEVI and the World Blind Union. Because of the pandemic, the conference was postponed to next year.

“We hope to inspire organizations in other countries to adopt our [Seeing Differently] model. We’ve already had informal conversations with other organizations about it,” Weisz-Rind tells ISRAEL21c.

From bullied child to accomplished musician

One of about a dozen active volunteers in Seeing Differently, Guy Maman is a vocalist and keyboardist with the Shalva Band, a group of talented musicians with disabilities.

The band captured hearts worldwide in the leadup to the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv.

During his childhood, Maman was bullied because of his visual impairment, says Weisz-Rind. When he was a teen, his family got involved with Ofek Liyladenu and life started to change for the better.

Dreaming of being a musician, Maman took the entrance exam for the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. He failed but didn’t give up.

“One of our graduates, singer and pianist Nili Seidel, has an MA in music and is completely blind. She prepared Guy to take the entrance exam again and he passed it,” says Weisz-Rind. “Today, he is very active in our Musical Dreams program.”

Seeing Differently volunteers also include university students, a social worker, translator and lawyer in training, among others.

Under the guidance of an Ofek Liyladenu social worker, the volunteers practice presenting their workshop with humor and polish.

Children in a Seeing Differently workshop experience different kinds of vision impairment. Photo courtesy of Ofek Liyladenu

“The motive was to do outreach in the wider society, but in the process they realized they need more training and better skills,” says Weisz-Rind.

“This led us to invest resources in developing, with the group, a training program including CV writing, public speaking, body language and appearance, how to plan and moderate workshops, how to market and publicize the program on social media. All those skills help them in the workplace too.”

Each new member undergoes training and mentoring for the first couple of months with regular peer evaluation and support.

Transforming schools and workplaces

Weisz-Rind says that since 2007, Seeing Differently has touched the lives of almost 10,000 Israelis from all walks of life. The team adapts each workshop to the specific audience: children, teachers, corporate employees, youth movement members, soldiers, medical students and even prisoners.

Judging by feedback forms, Seeing Differently has a powerful impact on audiences that translates into positive changes.

Teens in a community center experiencing a Seeing Differently workshop. Photo courtesy of Ofek Liyladenu

“Every year we encourage parents of children in Ofek Liyladenu to organize workshops in their children’s school. We find that the whole attitude of the school changes,” reports Weisz-Rind. “The program triggers immense improvements even in social relationships.”

The father of a legally blind nine-year-old son said the workshop had “an amazing impact” on his son’s school. “He told me that for the first time he feels that the other children understand him and the teachers make an effort to include him in activities.”

A 10-year-old sighted pupil commented, “The workshop was friendly and interesting, and we could ask any question. It was not frightening at all. If I see a blind person now, I will never make fun of him because I truly understand now what it’s like to be blind.”

One teacher commented after a Seeing Differently workshop, “The personal stories and the way the facilitators presented the subject made me realize that visual impairment is an integral part of life. It doesn’t ‘disable’ the aptitude to become functioning adults and much more!”

Often, after Seeing Differently corporate workshops, Ofek Liyladenu is asked to help the host companies make their space and culture more accessible to employees with visual disabilities.

Those requests are handled by consultants at Migdal Or (Lighthouse), a multi-service center dedicated to advancing people with blindness or visual impairment towards independent functioning and inclusion in the workplace.

“The unique model of Roim Acheret started as modest initiative. A group of youngsters with visual impairments who wanted to make a contribution to the association that supported them in earlier years while outreaching to the wider society,” says Weisz-Rind.

“In the process, they became proactive ambassadors of their community, social activists who change minds and hearts, empowered, self-confident and with a sense of pride.”

The non-profit Ofek Liyladenu depends on donations for its programs supporting 4,000 Jewish, Muslim and Christian children and their families. Click here for more information.