Lotan was born four months premature – her family spent six months in the intensive care unit with her, and after two months she suffered oxygen deprivation, leaving her with cerebral palsy and a lifelong battle for normalcy.
"All along, they warned us that she wouldn’t walk, wouldn’t dance,” relates her mother. “But all along I insisted, ‘Yes, you will!’”
Not only did Lotan succeed in walking – now through the Special in Uniform program she has fulfilled her dream of enlisting in the IDF like her peers and doing her part to defend the Jewish state.
Lotan's dream of joining the army began in her senior year in high school when IDF officials visited her school to speak to the students.
Parents, teachers and friends gently tried to dissuade her from her dream so she wouldn’t get hurt, and her parents even went with her to army registration where a doctor determined that she was exempt from army service.
But Lotan's heart was set, and she said, "I want to serve in army. I want to wear a uniform!”
Her strength of will led her to meet the directors of Special in Uniform, which was developed ten years ago by Maj. Col. (res.) Ariel Almog, former commander of the HFC base in Ramleh.
"'We’re with you, Lotan. We’ll escort you through this,' they promised my daughter. It was then that I really began to believe that one day she would serve in the army," recalls her mother.
With Special in Uniform's help, Lotan was able to achieve her dream. “It was such a moving experience to see her in uniform. I’m so proud of her. It was a major victory!,” said her mother.
Joining the army, joining society
The groundbreaking initiative of the IDF incorporates young people with disabilities into the army, emphasizes their abilities and skills and helps them in the long-term to integrate into society and the workforce.
Several years ago, Special in Uniform joined forces with Israel’s Lend a Hand to the Special Child Foundation, a grassroots organization established in 2005 by parents of children with disabilities that operates in partnership with the Jewish National Fund (JNF).
They work together to spread awareness of the program so that the thousands of youth eligible for the program can learn of its existence.
“The Special in Uniform program starts in the army, but doesn’t end there. We clearly see how it afterwards effects better integration into society, community and the workforce," explained Executive Director of Lend a Hand Rabbi Mendy Belinitzki.
Currently Special in Uniform incorporates over 200 special needs youth in the army, in an initiative contributing to the IDF and Israeli society by fostering acceptance and diversity.
An evaluation and assessment by a professional team kicks off the Special in Uniform program, followed by a three-month course on life skills and occupational skills training.
Participants then go through a ten-day basic training program to launch their military service, and then are integrated into a number of functions including preparing protective kits, manning emergency depots, a military store, printing shop, kitchen, shredding mill and more.
“The(se children) were in special education schools…suddenly they reach the age when everyone else joins the army, but the gates are closed. They can’t join. This program allows them to join the army, contribute, and give from themselves. Just like everyone else," said Lt. Col. (res.) Tiran Attia, director of the program.
With 230 participants and a long waiting list, Special in Uniform’s vision is to quickly expand the program to encompass 1,000 enrolled participants.