Braille Monitor               April 2023

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Supreme Action to Shatter Low Expectations: Living Blind and Serving on the Bench

by Richard Bernstein

Richard BernsteinFrom the Editor: This was a very moving presentation from a blind person who exercises the levers of power. It is one that kept us in our seats as we were ready to bolt for the stairs in preparation for the banquet. The presenter is a Supreme Court Justice on the Michigan Supreme Court, and this is what President Riccobono said in introducing him:

We've talked during this convention about the difficulties in getting support through the courts of this nation for the viewpoints that we hold about disability and equal access. One reason that we struggle with the courts is that, when you look at the judiciary system, especially at the federal level, you don't see any people who exhibit the qualities that we have, especially as it relates to disability! In fact, you might think by the folks that are serving on the bench that America doesn't have any people with disabilities! Well, our speaker here is a blind person, and he's serving in a significant position on the court. He's doing so in the state of Michigan. He's bringing his lived experience to the effort, of course. You'll recall that in our leadup to the 2020 elections, one of the states we worked in was Michigan on accessible voting. And, you know, blind people face trouble with voting all the time. But when one of the blind people who has trouble voting is a justice to the state supreme court, it gets a lot of people's attention! [Laughter and applause] So don't think that just because he serves in a significant position, he's immune from the problems that blind people have. He's still a blind person, and he brings that authenticity, that lived experience to the work he does every day, and it drives his passion. He uses his legal talents to advance our nation, but also through his lived experience, our cause as blind people.

He has come to our convention. We're glad to have him. And he is someone who I think is at this convention for the first time. Here's the Honorable Richard Bernstein!

I got a call a short time ago, and it was a call that probably many of you have had—and a conversation that many of you have had. It was a wonderful young prosecutor, and he told me, "I love practicing law, I love being a prosecutor, and the thing that I want to do more than anything is to serve as a judge. But I went before the committee,” and he said they told him, “You have all the qualifications, would be an outstanding judge, but we simply can't take you because you're blind.” [Crowd jeering and booing].

In what other situation, in what other group would that be okay? Imagine to say to somebody, “The only reason you can't have this job, the only reason you can't be promoted, the only reason you can't have advancement is solely and exclusively because of the way that God made you and the way that you were ultimately created?”

I am certain that every single person in this room, throughout their educational process or at their workplace has had to contend with that self-appointed expert who feels that they know everything about blindness—when they have no knowledge, no training, and no expertise. Yet, so often in our workplaces, we have to be subservient to this mindset and to these types of people.

I would venture to say that even in our social lives, blindness will always play a role. It's always so funny that as you're growing up, people will say, "I found the perfect girl for you!" And I'll say, "Oh, that's great, tell me all about her," and they'll say, "Oh, she's blind." [Laughter] And I'll say, "What else?"

"Well, she's blind." [Laughter] That's it! She's blind. She's perfect for you because she is blind. [Laughter]

You know, it's interesting. We as blind people have to contend with so much. It is always the same people who feel that we aren't capable of handling certain jobs or doing certain things, and yet these are the same people that will always say things to you like, “Oh, have you read about this blind guy that climbed Mount Everest?” As wonderful and amazing as that is, we don't all climb Mount Everest! And the irony that so many of us who are blind have to contend with each and every day is this paradox. [Crowd agreeing]

When we try to go for employment, try to go for jobs, people have this natural instinct to exclude us because they can't believe that we can actually perform the duties that are before us. But then, at the same time, there are these ridiculous expectations that they feel that we have to meet because they always know about that one blind guy: “There's this ONE blind guy that I know! And he does all these things.” So we get compared to people in an unrealistic fashion.

I think the reason that I am so excited to be a part of the NFB is I thank God for this organization; thank God for its work! [Cheering and applause] Thank God for its efforts! But most importantly, thank God for its advocacy. Because it's people like the NFB who are making life better for each and every one of us. They're not exploiting us. They're advocating for us. They're dedicated to doing the types of things that make our life better.

Listen: for all of us who are here today, whether you were born blind or whether you're in a more challenging situation where you have lost your vision suddenly and are now having to learn how to be blind, there are real challenges that come with blindness. There are real difficulties that come with blindness. It is something that we have to contend with and live with and experience each and every day.

Yes, there are so many people that are out doing extraordinary things, and that is fantastic. But what we have to focus on are the basics. We have to focus on the fact that, according to the Census, over 80 percent of our population is currently unemployed. Now, that is not because we are not capable. That is not because we are not talented. That is not because we are not hardworking. It is solely and exclusively socioeconomic, which is exacerbated by our disabilities.

You know, I want to be very direct, because I think it's important. The worst thing that someone can stand up here and say is, "Well, if I can do it, you can do it," which I find to be infuriating. That is so outrageous! [Laughter and applause] And it is so offensive, and so arrogant! Because ultimately, what we know here at the NFB is that every one of us has our own story. [Cheering] Every one of us has our own unique experience. And I just like to be honest, direct. That's just my nature as a judge. You just say it honestly and directly to people. Let's just put it out there. If I had not been born and blessed to come from the family that I come from, where I had the absolute best of everything—I had the best of schools, I had the best of teachers, I had literally the best of everything because my family was able to provide that—but if I hadn't been given those advantages, those unbelievable socioeconomic advantages, there is no question that I would be part of the 80 percent who are currently unemployed and having to struggle. [Applause]

So I think the idea of this conference and the idea as to why we gather and as to why we are together is because the NFB represents the reality of the world, and the NFB represents the reality of what blind people have to face and contend with each and every day. I don't have a lot of time to be with you today, because you've got some extraordinary speakers, but I'm hoping that we will have much more time in the future.

There's a certain thing that I really do want to highlight, and I really do believe needs to be focused. When people say—like they said to this young prosecutor—that being a judge is simply unattainable for you because how can you do this if you can't see, they are missing the most important element of this. What makes a good judge is not your academics. It's not your intellectualism. It's not your ability to research and to write and to publish, and it is certainly not your ability to see. What makes a good judge, what makes a good leader, is what every single person in this audience has. It is life experience. Everyone here today understands what it means to truly have to struggle. Everyone in this room understands what it feels like to be left out. Everyone in this room understands the general feeling you have when people discriminate against you for something that is beyond your control. [Applause] The reason that the NFB has to be loud, the reason that the NFB has to be active, the reason that the NFB has to be engaged is because often it's the case that, when you ask what makes a good judge, when you ask what makes a good lawyer, when you ask what makes a good doctor, when you ask what makes a good professional, when you ask what makes a good person, it is solely and exclusively the notion of living with struggle—understanding struggle, understanding adversity.

Here's what I want to say to everybody who is here at this conference. This is the notion. If you learn to live with struggle, and you learn to face adversity like everybody has here today, you can live your life with passion. You can live your life with purpose. You can live your life with meaning. And you can live your life with a mission that will allow you to transform the world which we know. You're here because you have that mission. You're here because you have that passion. You're here because you understand why you were ultimately created. We're a powerful organization, for we are a powerful people. And when we go forth into society and into the world at large, and people give us opportunities, they are not doing it out of charity. They are doing it because we add to their organization. They're doing it because we teach people the lesson of resilience. We teach people the lesson of strength. We teach people the lesson of struggle. We teach people the lesson of mission and purpose.

I conclude with my favorite biblical story that goes to the essence and heart of why we are here and why we're so dedicated to doing what we do. It's the story of the angel coming upon Jacob deep into the night. As the Bible teaches us, there existed an intense battle that ranged until dawn. And when the sun rose, the angel blessed Jacob and gave him a new name, the name of Israel, which translates to mean "one who struggles with God." But as scripture teaches us, Jacob was not left uninjured. For after the struggle, he was given a shattered hip. He would walk with a limp, and he would know great pain for the remainder of his days.

I believe that scripture teaches us this valuable lesson because it was only through Jacob's struggle, it was only through his setback, it was only through his frustration that he was able to connect, appreciate, and understand the challenges and the hardships of his fellow man. And it was only through that ability that he was able to become a leader and the father of a nation.

Let us go forth and take our struggle, find our passion, and continue to do what we do as blind people: make the world better for everybody. [Cheering and applause]

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