Richard Bernstein won’t let anything stand in his way. This Michigan-based powerhouse of an attorney has taken on airlines, airports, universities, the American Bar Association, and the Department of Transportation in both Detroit and New York City. When he’s not winning cases, he’s teaching political science, running marathons (eighteen, so far), competing in Ironman triathlons, hosting a radio show or traveling the globe to speak about acing life’s challenges.
He should know. He’s blind.
Obstacles don’t exist in Bernstein’s world. Blind-from-birth, he learned early on that the key to a successful life – blind or sighted – is to create your own light. He’s been busy spreading his radiant light to lives across the globe, bringing the message of accessibility and inclusion to cities throughout the U.S. and beyond.
He’s visited Sydney, Melbourne, the Gold Coast, London, and Sao Paulo. Jewish communities interested in launching special education and athletics programs call on him to hear his vital message that if you give it your all, Hashem will make it possible. “I’m grateful that I’m able to give voice to people who otherwise don’t have it,” says Bernstein.
Although Bernstein’s days are anything but dark, he admits it hasn’t been easy. “When you’re different, you struggle,” he says, blinded from birth as a result of retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease in which there is damage to the retina. “But, an easy life doesn’t necessarily mean a good or fulfilling one. How you choose to respond to life, that’s how you’re going to live.” His response to a life in the dark is to become a veritable blaze of optimism.
“He loves connecting with people,” says Tzippi Rosen, program director of Florida Yachad, the flagship program of the Orthodox Union’s National Jewish Council for Disabilities (NJCD). Yachad provides social, educational, and recreational programs for individuals with learning, developmental, and physical disabilities with the goal of their inclusion in the total life of the Jewish community. Rosen welcomed Bernstein as guest speaker for his second Florida Yachad Shabbaton.
“Yachad Shabbatons are great,” says Bernstein, whose visit to Florida Yachad drew a crowd of 600 captivated listeners. “You could feel the impact it has on the participants. It’s transformative for them. They crave these things that every one takes for granted. They crave the normalcy. ‘I’m doing what my brother or sister does!’ ‘My child has this incredible opportunity to go to a Shabbaton and make friends.’ If the synagogue lets us speak ‘from the pulpit,’ more schools and synagogues would participate. You have to introduce people who have never been exposed to disabilities. If you have disabilities and want to learn more about Judaism, Yachad is the place. It’s been my total pleasure to go.”
Evidently, the feeling was mutual. “He blew everyone away,” says Rosen. “They said he was the most amazing person they had ever met. When you could hear a pin drop in an audience of students, you know they’re taking in every word. I said to myself, if he could do as much as he does [with his life] and always with a smile, I could at least do half.”
A typical Richard Bernstein day would seem to demand a lot more than twenty-four hours. After Florida Yachad’s Shabbaton, he flew to New York to speak at the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County in Long Island on the Wednesday prior to the NYC marathon. Then, he was off to Columbia, South Carolina, to speak at synagogues and schools about the necessity of Inclusion. The following week found him presenting at San Francisco’s Friendship Circle (Chabad’s initiative for those with developmental disabilities). He then flew overseas to advise the Sao Paulo, Brazil, Jewish community on promoting and implementing greater inclusion. He appeared at twenty speaking-engagements in ten days to audiences throughout Australia, as well as London. He’s on a mission unaffected by the limits of time. “Many families [abroad] don’t have the special education opportunities we have in the States,” he says. “My goal is to help them to realize what is possible.”
He’s keeping a promise he made years ago.
Bernstein knew he wanted to be a lawyer from a very young age. And it’s not just because he comes from three-generations of attorneys. “I love what it represents,” he says. “I can literally make life better for people. If a big entity is discriminating, it doesn’t matter how powerful, government, corporation — you can make real change. When there’s injustice, the law allows for change and making things right.”
Getting through law school is no easy feat in the best of circumstances. While at Northwestern University, Bernstein had to memorize lectures, test questions and entire “fact patterns” (the basis for the questions), some of which were multiple pages long; he often put in thirteen hours of study a day.
“I made a deal with Hashem,” says Bernstein. “I said, ‘If You get me through this, I will dedicate my life to representing the special needs populations.’” He received his Juris Doctorate (J.D.) degree from Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago in 1999 and promptly informed his father of his aspirations to establish a public service division in The Sam Bernstein Law Firm, the family law practice in Farmington Hills, Michigan. It turned out to be the firm’s fastest growing division.
“Richard’s my hero,” says older brother, Mark, a fellow managing partner at the family firm. “He had to figure out how to navigate a world that wasn’t as accommodating to him as it was for others. I think that’s what enabled him to do the extraordinary. No matter what disappointment or setback, he picks himself up and uses it to motivate him. He’s redefined the meaning of vision.”
Racing for His Life
The ultimate fulfillment of his promise to G-d came after he discovered his other great passion, athletics. He joined Achilles International, a non-profit organization providing training and racing opportunities to individuals with disabilities. (Founded in 1983 by Dick Traum, an above-knee amputee, Achilles has 65 chapters within the United States and abroad.) Bernstein’s involvement led to his manifold achievements in the world’s most arduous races.
“Athletics gave me a self-confidence I hadn’t had before,” says Bernstein, who was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame this past April. “In high school, I was unable to participate in sports. I was [relegated to] sitting on the sideline.” This newfound assertiveness inspired him to take on Herculean legal contests. “My father would come into my office and say, ‘Richard, did we just sue the city of Detroit?’ ‘Did we just sue Delta?’ I was able to break free, to have more control over my destiny.”
He partnered with the United States Department of Justice to legally push the City of Detroit to repair broken wheelchair lifts on the city’s buses. In a landmark settlement against Delta Airlines and Detroit Metro Airport, he gained accessibility for fliers with disabilities, setting the precedent for airlines and airports to comply with the mandates in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. He also fought the State of Michigan and proved victorious in preserving special education funding throughout the state. Ironically, he filed a suit against his employer, the University of Michigan, on behalf of the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America. The suit claimed that Michigan Stadium (a.k.a. “The Big House”) violated the ADA in its approximately $300-million renovation by failing to add enough seats for fans with disabilities or accommodate their needs via accessible restrooms, concessions and parking.
Thanks to Bernstein’s efforts, the legal settlement called for 329 seats with an equal number of “companion seats.” In its first football season after compliance to the mandate, the university reported in a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice and to Bernstein that 74% to 89% of the available wheelchair-accessible seats were sold for each of its seven home games. The case helped to define the compliant guideline as it pertains to the differences between “alternations” versus “repairs” for commercial facilities on a nationwide basis.
One wonders how he juggles all of his court appearances, athletics training sessions, and domestic and international speaking engagements. He attributes it to excellent time management. “I’ve got great colleagues who structure my day from hour to hour,” says Bernstein. “Every minute of my day is accounted for. And the day doesn’t end until I’ve completed the needed tasks.”
One of his most recent lawsuits was filed from his bed at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan. In August of 2012, while Bernstein walked through Central Park, winding down from a workout for his eighteenth NYC marathon, a speeding cyclist (going 35 mph, 10 mph over the speed limit) struck him from behind causing him to fall face down onto the asphalt. He suffered facial abrasions requiring surgery, tooth damage and a broken and dislocated hip, which required a ten-week hospital stay. The suit (filed in federal court against the City of New York and the New York City Department of Transportation) claimed Central Park was inaccessible to blind, visually-impaired and disabled visitors, that it violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 by failing to stop reckless cyclists using the roadways. The lawsuit stipulated that the city come up with a plan to make Central Park safe for people with disabilities. The case is pending.
Spirituality of Disability
Although he grew up with a limited Jewish education, he found himself reconnecting to Judaism after his recent accident. Upon hearing of his injuries, Orthodox rabbanim in the community came to visit. “They were there for me every single day,” says Bernstein, not as yet married, but hoping to someday. “That level of support inspired me to learn more and to grow. I had an incredible sense of belonging.”
Despite his disability, he considers his life truly blessed. “People who know and appreciate struggle every day are given the greatest life,” he says. “You find that you have an incredible ability to differentiate [between] what is important and what is not. You have a resiliency to push forward and do things that people never thought was possible.”
A powerful case in point, and one Bernstein makes sure to present to his students at the beginning of each semester, is that he actually practices in the court system that said “he should be sterilized.” In the early 1930’s, the state of Virginia brought a case to the US Supreme Court to gain the right to forcibly sterilize people with disabilities in Virginia-run institutions, on the grounds that it would be for the ultimate betterment of society. “Before the ADA, people with disabilities didn’t have the right to ride a bus, to fly on an airplane, to enter many buildings,” says Bernstein. “Look at how far we have come. People like myself are a valued and valuable part of the community. People with disabilities get educations, have jobs, and live independently. Every right came with a struggle.”
Difficulty doesn’t faze Bernstein; he runs on optimism and goes the distance. “No matter how far we have to go, things will only get better,” he asserts. “If you have a disability, it is only appropriate that you feel that sense of struggle. But your life is going to be nothing less than extraordinary.”