By Jo Mathis
AAPS District News Editor
Those who attended Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein’s speech at Pioneer High School Tuesday were treated to an inspiring 30 minutes.
But if they didn’t stick around for a few minutes afterwards, they missed seeing a powerful presentation become even more memorable.
Using her little cane for assistance, three-year-old Khara Joseph and her mother, Jennifer, climbed the stage steps and introduced themselves to Bernstein, who—like Khara—has been blind since birth.
Within seconds, the chatty Khara had Bernstein laughing and commenting on how social and smart she is, and how she will encounter the best, empathetic side of people.
“She will be a game changer in this world,” Bernstein told Jennifer Joseph, as her smiling mother, Bryant kindergarten teacher Deborah Joseph, captured the encounter on her iPad. “She will rival me.”
And that’s a tall order.
Bernstein, who has traveled around the world fighting for the rights of the disabled, and completed a full-scale Iron Man competition and 18 marathons—the last one after recovering from a catastrophic accident, spoke to the crowd with passion about why bad things happen to otherwise good people.
Bernstein spoke Tuesday during the AAPS Student Intervention and Support Services’ Assistive Technology Expo.
He said he tells parents of children with special needs that there will be nothing about their lives or their children’s lives that will be ordinary because those children were not sent here to be ordinary, but to be extraordinary.
“We sometimes have to believe that we’re part of something big, that we’re part of something grand, that we’re part of something meaningful; that we’re part of something that’s bigger than ourselves,” he said in a booming voice that at times seemed to be coming from a pulpit. “We have to believe, and those who are here today live life under this adage. We have to believe that extraordinary things can, will and must happen for all of us.”
Bernstein recalled waking up following his 2012 accident in the trauma section of Mount Sinai Medical Center in horrible pain with an uncertain future. Someone came to his bedside and reminded him that the one great choice we have in life is how we choose to react to the lives that have been chosen for us.
“How do we choose to react to the fate that God has bestowed on each and every one of us?” he asked. “And everyone here in this room knows this better than anybody. We come to realize and we come to understand that often an easy life does not always correspond to a good one.”
He said those forced to live with hardship, challenge and pain are the ones who get the absolute most out of life, and that families of special needs children come to realize that they’ve been given an incredible blessing.
“You come to realize that you have been given an incredible gift,” he said. “You’ve been given the blessing of perspective. The blessing of compassion. The blessing of understanding. The blessing of warmth. But most importantly, you have been given the blessing of empathy—the ability to relate to other people; the ability to understand the challenges of other people; the ability to understand hardship and pain and struggle; the ability to connect with others. And it is through connection with others that you’re able to have a more enhanced connection with our creator.”
An easy life does not always mean a good one, he emphasized.
“You know that you’re sent here for something more,” he said, addressing those who live or work with special needs. “You know that you’re sent here for something with a greater purpose and a greater mission. You know that you are sent here to make our world and our community better for everyone.”
The body might appear to be weak and face challenges, he said.
“But those who have special needs and those who have disabilities, no matter what they are, are always the ones who have the strongest of souls,” he said.
He said these spirits soar to a place that those who don’t have disabilities will never have the chance to visit or even remotely understand.
“Today is a day here at the Ann Arbor Public Schools that we should celebrate because there is no question that there is work to be done,” he said. “There is no question that there are challenges before us. But we must celebrate where we are today. We must celebrate the strides we’ve made today. We must honor the accomplishments that have been delivered.”
Bernstein said that just a few decades ago, it was understood that people with disabilities should be out of sight and out of mind; relegated to institutions.
He noted that those with disabilities are now welcomed into our schools, job force, and way of life, and that it’s considered perfectly ordinary that those with special needs are all around us.
“When you reach a point when the extraordinary becomes ordinary, you realize just how far we have come and just what we have ultimately accomplished and achieved on our journey,” he said.
Bernstein said he was there to celebrate more than adaptive technology.
“We’re here to celebrate resilience, strength, struggle, and perseverance” he said. “We’re here to celebrate life. Life at its core. Life for its good and life for its bad. But we’re here to celebrate life at its essence. We’re here to celebrate the idea that extraordinary things can, will and must happen for each and every one of us.”
He is a big believer in making peace with one’s circumstances and with the creator.
“We reach a certain point in our lives when we can no longer focus on trying to get over it,” he said. “We’re simply too busy just getting on with it.”
Later, after speaking with Bernstein about her daughter, Jennifer Joseph called the speech amazing and uplifting, and said it brought her to tears.
“To see someone who was born blind and has accomplished so much,” she said, “gave me so much hope that Khara can do anything she wants.”