By JERRY WOLFFE
(c) For MORC MATTERS
Richard Bernstein brought tears of joy and gave great encouragement to those working with people with disabilities in “a historic speech” about the challenges he overcame to be the first blind state Supreme Court Justice in the nation.
His words left about 150 staff and guests at the Macomb-Oakland Regional Center greatly motivated to continue the work of giving those with disabilities a chance at a happy and purposeful life.
“He was just wonderful,” said Dr. Barry Schoenbart, director of Healthcare Infomatics, of Bernstein’s message of Dec. 17. “It was really moving, motivational and inspirational of him to thank the staff at MORC for devoting their careers to helping other people. He is a remarkable down-to-earth kind of a guy.”
Nancy Ricotta, reimbursement supervisor of Consumer Financial Affairs, said Bernstein’s words hit “a bulls-eye right in my heart. I was absolutely unprepared for that kind of a talk. I thought we were going to listen to an educated well-spoken man tell us about his career. When he talked about spiritual strength I was a goner.
“He said the words I’ve said a thousand times,” said Ricotta, whose daughter Chelsea has a disability.
When Bernstein spoke about pain and suffering and wondered if people like Chelsea will ever land upon the “peaceful shore” where she will be happy, tears swelled up in Ricotta’s eyes and she left the room for a few moments to compose herself.
“He is elegant and that’s an understatement,” she said.
Many were deeply moved by Bernstein’s understanding of disability and saying how much he appreciates the difficult work MORC workers do daily.
Jane Guy of the HIM Department said Bernstein “is a very good speaker in a spiritual way. He definitely has passion for what he believes in. He was encouraging to everyone and people like to hear that.”
Bernstein noted in his speech: “It’s not the struggles we face, but how we face them.”
He then for the first time publicly revealed discrimination he experienced earlier in his life.
After graduating summa cum laude from Northwestern University, Bernstein interviewed with legal firms hoping to land a job as an attorney. A law degree from Northwestern is prestigious and invariably a ticket to a position at a top-notch firm.
“I didn’t even get one call-back after interviewing with 65 firms on campus,” he said. “I didn’t have to interview with them but I wanted to see what it was like when one is blind and trying to get a job.”
Bernstein then went to work at his family’s Farmington Hills law firm and established a division that fought for civil rights pro bono for those with disabilities.
“I just thought he was one terrific person,” said receptionist Sue Harp. “He’s a very accomplished individual and I thoroughly enjoyed his speech.”
Kym Juntti, Training and CPLS Director, said: “I found his message inspiring and thought provoking.
"It was a good reminder for all of us to not let barriers deter us from our mission of advocacy for those who voices are often times silenced or forgotten. In a time when it seems those in power have lost touch with the daily struggles of those we serve, it is nice to know Justice Bernstein has the courage, experience and wisdom to remind them.”
MORC Executive Director Gerald Provencal said Bernstein’s presentation “was truly one of the great moments in the long history of MORC fighting for rights for those with disabilities.
“Bernstein’s speech reminded us that this work is not labor, not employment. It is a gift and we should accept it as such,” Provencal said.
“We have an opportunity to make life whatever we chose to make it. And, that is also the case for the people we work for who count on us.
“Justice Bernstein left the audience not just thrilled with him being there and motivated by his speech but we were reminded there is a great challenge in front of each of us – a challenge we should treasure and make us all better for accepting that challenge.”