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The Lifelong Bond of Siblings

Israel Elwyn Partners with Bar-Ilan University to Hold National Conference on the Siblings of Adults with Intellectual Disabilities


(L-r: Siblings panel and view of audience).

On February 17, Israel Elwyn (IE) and Bar-Ilan University’s Louis and Gabi Weisfeld School of Social Work co-hosted an exceptional and first of its kind conference attended by one hundred brothers, sisters, and parents of people with disabilities, and professionals and students from various disciplines.  The event had its origins in an IE-sponsored support group for parents and siblings of residents in the IE Supported Living Services in Jerusalem.  

Two years ago, the group raised the issue of adult siblings’ expanding and evolving role in the lives of their brother or sister with a disability as their parents age.  IE’s first step in engaging this issue was to sponsor an in-house seminar for IE’s professionals and the siblings and parents of Supported Living Services residents at which the meaning and implications for siblings was further discussed.  The seminar’s deliberations made clear that opening the subject to additional relatives of individuals with disabilities and professionals from various disciplines would be useful.  Thus, The Lifelong Bond of Siblings conference was born.   A special partner in the design and planning of the conference was Dr. Ruth Raif, former director of the Assessment and Personal Betterment Department of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Social Services’ Department of Intellectual Disabilities.

A Source of Both Difficulties and Strengths: The Conference’s keynote speaker was Seattle-based Don Meyer, an international specialist in the field, director of the Sibling Support Project and creator of the Sibshops programs for young siblings worldwide.  Meyer’s lecture focused on how being the sibling of an individual with intellectual disabilities can be a source of both difficulties and strengths.  Meyer emphasized that it is key for both parents and professionals to acknowledge this dichotomy, and underscored the importance of parents preparing plans for the future of their child with a disability and involving siblings in the planning process.  This was seen as critical in view of the fact that the relationship with a brother or sister is potentially the longest lasting and most significant relationship that will exist in the life of any person, including those with a disability.

My Brother’s Keeper – in the Bible: In a lecture entitled Siblings: Myth and Reality, Professor Henry Abramowitz stated that the Bible is filled with examples of relations between siblings – Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, etc., while Greek and Roman sources mention far fewer stories of this unique familial dynamic.  Bringing his training in both psychology and anthropology to bear, Professor Abramowitz explored the Biblical theme where one sibling benefits at the expense of the other siblings and then suffers feelings of guilt.

Characteristics of Being an Adult Sibling: The Conference also featured a panel entitled Characteristics of Being an Adult Sibling.  Composed of brothers and sisters of an adult with an intellectual disability, the panel was headed by Idit Gudes-Greenbaum, Esq., who has a sibling with a disability, and was joined by Meyer.  Beginning with early childhood memories up to the present time (when most siblings are married and have children), panel members described how they deal with being a sibling and how they present and share it with their children.  Their frank descriptions were inspiring and gave Conference participants a unique and meaningful view of the sibling experience.

Fraternity in Film: Orna Levy, a movie producer and director, presented the subject of adult siblings in cinema by relating to two movies:  “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” (USA) and “Life According to George” (France).  In the first film, a young man takes responsibility for his brother, virtually sacrificing his own life and needs.  In the second, a sister cedes responsibility for her brother to someone else in his life.

Next Steps

Both professionals and family members who participated in the Conference agreed that it raised an important point which needs further attention on both the personal and professional levels.  IE sees further steps, starting with research, as being necessary to ensure that attention is given to the dilemmas facing the brothers and sisters of adults with disabilities, especially as parents age. 

Lets Connect

We'd love to hear from you! Also, please let us know in advance of your next trip to Israel and we will give you a tour of the Israel Elwyn programs.

You can also contact one of our North American offices: United States: (267) 225-5132 or Canada: (416) 649-1655.

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David B. Marcu, Chief Executive Officer

IE's mission is to develop and provide a wide array of supports and tools for people with disabilities, while constantly striving for excellence of service and the creation of a just society. Together with people with disabilities and society at large, we shall continue working as an innovative and cutting-edge organization.

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