Though University alum and attorney Richard Bernstein filed a lawsuit against the University several years ago, there were no hard feelings on Friday when he was honored for his work in disability awareness.
Bernstein, 55, received the 2011 James T. Neubacher award from the University’s Council for Disability Concerns in front of a crowd of about 50 people in the Rackham Assembly Hall Friday morning. The award — named after the University alum, Detroit Free Press columnist and disability advocate — recognizes people who have helped to promote disability awareness.
Bernstein, a1996 graduate and currently a University lecturer of political science, works pro bono at The Sam Bernstein Law Firm in Farmington Hills to represent people with disabilities. Bernstein, who is blind, is most known for his efforts to get the University to improve accessible seating for people with disabilities in Michigan Stadium. He represented the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America in the 2007 case that ruled that the University’s renovation plan for the Big House was not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. This subsequently led to the development of increased handicap accessible seating areas, in addition to advanced accommodations for wheelchair users.
Jack Bernard, chair of the University’s Council for Disability Concerns who presented the award, praised Bernstein for his efforts to make the University community more aware of the needs of people with disabilities.
“People cannot resist Rick when he puts his mind and effort into something,” Bernard said. “I think Rick is the first recipient of the Neubacher award to have sued the University of Michigan on a disability issue.”
In his speech at the award ceremony, Bernstein described the strength and resolve of people with disabilities.
“Folks who live life with a true sense of adversity, they are given the blessing of purpose,” he said.
Bernstein lauded strives that have been made in society regarding the acceptance of people with disabilities.
“When you see a disabled person on an aircraft, or you see a disabled person in your class or when you see a disabled person on a bus … you don’t even think twice about it anymore,” he said. “We won. We’ve achieved what we’ve set out to do.”
At the event, the Council for Disability Concerns also awarded members of the University community for their work in disability awareness.
University of Michigan-Dearborn junior Rebecca Parten received a certificate of appreciation for founding the Alliance for Disability Awareness — a student group at the University of Michigan-Dearborn that spreads disability awareness. Parten has Arthrogryposis, a congenital disorder characterized by joint deformities and neuromuscular dysfunction, and said she personally feels the benefits of the group’s work.
“It’s really cool to know that there is a good, strong group of people that recognized the importance and need (for raising disability awareness),” Parten said.
James H. Neubacher, the father of the award’s namesake, attended this year’s event with his wife.
“It’s a family,” he said of the disabled community. “There’s a sense of support and community … people come here and they see wonderful things that people have been doing, and they get energized by it.”
But as Bernstein pointed out, society’s recognition and accommodation of people with disabilities is a gradual process.
“Change comes in painfully slow methodical steps,” Bernstein said. “But real change can be true, genuine and ultimately everlasting.”