He is an Ironman. He’s run 18 marathons, including one just a year after shattering his hip and pelvis in an accident. He’s a graduate of the distinguished Northwestern University School of Law and, since passing the bar, he’s developed into a civil rights powerhouse, having earned numerous verdicts on behalf of disabled people worldwide in landmark cases against the likes of Delta Airlines, the City of Detroit, and the University of Michigan. Most recently, he was elected to serve an eight-year term on the Michigan State Supreme Court. His campaign slogan was “Justice should be blind” — a fitting refrain considering that, though his list of accolades is remarkable enough on its own, it’s even more remarkable when you find out that Justice Richard Bernstein has been blind since birth.
He connected with the AJP on an international phone call from the bustling port of Tel Aviv in Israel, where he was working with local lawmakers, officials, technology companies and friends to try to make a number of governmental agencies and processes more accessible to Israelis with disabilities. Bernstein is the perfect embodiment of his primary professional message — that people with disabilities are often a heck of a lot more capable than the general population might assume. “People with disabilities: we know what we can do; we know what we can accomplish; we know what we can achieve,” says Bernstein. “We simply have to get able-bodied people to realize it.”
Through his work in the public service division of his family law firm, Bernstein has made sure that a number of major construction projects and renovations to public buildings and structures were completed with disabled people in mind, but he notes that his work in the courtroom doesn’t just benefit those with disabilities. “Anything that you do to help people with disabilities helps society at large,” he says. He points to his suit against the University of Michigan on behalf of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, saying the verdict not only made the entire Wolverine’s football stadium wheelchair accessible, it also created a more pleasurable and safer experience for game-going senior citizens, for example. As a result of the case, even locker rooms were made ADA compliant in order to accommodate potential visits by disabled journalists.
After he was struck from behind by a bicyclist in New York’s Central Park in August 2012, despite catastrophic injuries that led to a 10-week hospital stay and threatened to end his amateur athletic career, Bernstein’s thoughts turned to extracting some bit of positivity from the situation. He filed suit against the City of New York, asking only that officials address safety hazards to disabled people in the park, requesting no financial judgment. Bernstein had a long road to recovery that included learning how to walk again but, a year later, he completed the New York City Marathon while fighting excruciating pain from his injury, from which he is still in recovery today. That particular race traditionally finishes in Central Park. It’s little wonder, then, that Bernstein says he considers that latest marathon to be his proudest achievement.
When training, Bernstein always has a partner with him and, during his Ironman triathlon, this meant riding a tandem bicycle for 112 miles and swimming for 2.4 miles “in total darkness,” amidst a tangle of grappling, kicking limbs whilst tethered to another athlete, and all of this before running the final 26.2 miles. Where Bernstein has tested the limits of his mind as a professional by necessarily committing to memory what his colleagues keep in volumes upon volumes of notes, as an athlete, Bernstein says that he’s learned the limits of his body, and has thus connected more with his spirituality. “What you learn from an Ironman is that God will always give you what you need when you need it,” says Bernstein. “He won’t give you anything more, but he’ll never give you anything less.”
It is with that same sense of optimism that Bernstein approaches life in general. Words like “beautiful” and “wonderful” pepper his conversation. And, in the face of difficulty, Bernstein is a model of what unwavering drive and dedication can accomplish. “It’s through the pain and the struggle and the challenge that something remarkable happens, and you come to realize that the body might be mortal, but the soul is all powerful,” Bernstein says, adding that “the body has limitations, but the soul has no bounds.”
Bernstein’s Sept. 10 talk will be held from 7-8:30 p.m. Tickets are $10. To RSVP, call 299-3000 or go to tucsonjcc.org/arts/special-events.
Craig S. Baker is a freelance writer in Tucson.