Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein draws on experiences with disability to emphasize inclusion
Richard Bernstein, Michigan Supreme Court justice, spoke on the importance of inclusion Sunday at the University of Michigan Hillel as part of the University’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiative, a long-term plan for increasing equity and inclusivity at the University.
Bernstein graduated from the University in 1996 and earned his law degree from Northwestern University’s School of Law. He practiced law alongside his brother Mark Bernstein — a University regent — and the rest of his family at The Sam Bernstein Law Firm until his election to the Michigan Supreme Court in 2014.
LSA junior Sarah Parkes, Hillel’s social action cohort chair, said she invited Bernstein, who has been blind since birth, to speak because she felt his voice was one the community needed to hear.
“We are an inclusive environment (where) everyone should feel comfortable and we feel like he has a lot to say about that,” Parkes said. “We’re having a tumultuous time on campus right now, and we’re looking for a way to promote inclusivity and a way to overcome adversity. I think that it’ll be great for our community to have a different lens.”
Much of Bernstein’s talk was made up of anecdotes from his own experiences with overcoming the adversity he faced being blind in pursuit of inclusion. Despite his disability, he successfully completed 20 marathons and a full Ironman, which is a triathlon composed of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a marathon 26.2-mile run.
He also spoke on his long recovery after a severe accident in Central Park when he was hit by a biker while walking unassisted along a path he had memorized. During the 10 weeks he spent recovering in the hospital, he learned to appreciate even accomplishments as small as being able to sit up in bed.
“In life, it’s those simple things that people desperately want, that others don’t appreciate,” Bernstein said. “As you all go through your lives, I would ask you to celebrate every accomplishment you have, no matter how small and insignificant you think it is.”
He also emphasized how being a justice on the Supreme Court tied back to these ideals.
Bernstein described his job as a justice as a rewarding but intense one, because in most of the cases the court sees, they are deciding whether the defendants should face life in prison.
“The intensity is quite massive, because the stakes are incredibly high,” Bernstein said. “Literally nothing less than a person’s life hangs in the balance. Whatever our report decides will be the outcome of this person’s life.”
As a blind justice, Bernstein faces an extra stressor — he must memorize all 26 cases that come before the court each week.
“You have to be familiar with the transcripts, and the transcripts are voluminous,” Bernstein said. “(Reading them in braille) would be simply impossible. Using a computer is also ineffective because if you wear an earpiece, you are not relevant in the conversation. You have to be focused on what is happening. The only option for me is to memorize all the cases.”
Bringing the conversation back to inclusion, Bernstein told the audience that his differences, and those of each justice, are what make them so effective as a body.
“If you have seven people sitting around the room … that are all from the same background, then voices are going to be lost,” he said. “But if you have people that are different, it allows you to look at things in a different light. You create a perspective that otherwise wasn’t there.”
The event drew a wide range of people, from both the Hillel community and from the greater University. LSA juniors Halimat Olaniyan and Yuchen Luo, who recently started a student organization to promote disability services and studies, said they were excited to hear Bernstein’s thoughts on the subject.
“There’s racism and there’s sexism, but there’s also ableism, and people don’t talk about that a lot,” Olaniyan said. “A lot of the words we use are ableist … things that we don’t think about, like ‘lame’ or ‘I’m so ADHD,’ that affect someone who has that (disability), and we just want to spread awareness.”
Other students were drawn to the event because of Bernstein’s story. LSA freshman Sam Kole said he felt inspired by Bernstein’s passion and drive.
“He didn’t let anything hold him back,” Kole said. “He pushed the status quo and really became a champion for people with disabilities, and rose to the highest levels of our state government. I’m here to hear about his fiery passion that led him through diversity and to the top.”
Bernstein concluded his speech by talking about a project he’s working on to integrate disabled citizens into the Israeli Defense Force, which has become a law in Israel.
“This is how change happens,” he said. “We’ve been working on this for five or six years … Change comes in very slow, methodical steps, but if you don’t give up on it, that kind of change is real.”