Autism: There are none so blind as those who will not see

Last week, Chabad of Westport, Connecticut and The Friendship Circle of Stamford, Connecticut co-hosted an event to help raise community awareness about special needs.

Allison Ziering-Walmark and Richard Bernstein

Not only did I attend the event, but I also had been asked to both speak about my experiences with special needs, and introduce Richard Bernstein, the evening’s guest of honor.

Despite my love of four letter words and sexual double entendres that would make even the most grizzled sailors blush, I was on my best behavior that evening — an evening that was filled with laughter, awe, enlightenment and love. Below is an edited version of my introduction:

Tonight we are here to celebrate, honor and better understand people with special needs, and I know a thing or two about special needs. My now 7-year-old-son Ethan first qualified for Early Intervention Services at 16 months of age. My son happens to be a musical prodigy. In the past year, through a combination of divine intervention, intense therapeutic services, the dedication of the staff and volunteers of both Westport Chabad’s Gan Israel and Chabad’s Friendship Circle, Ethan’s neurological, physical, emotional, academic and social growth has grown exponentially.

Ironically, in what can only be described as full circle, his Billy Joel “Piano Man” video which was posted in April 2012 has recently seen a resurgence on the internet. As I jokingly say, “Ethan’s video is like herpes. You just can’t get rid of it.” As a mother, I humbly believe that Ethan’s passion, talent and showmanship have done much to further educate people about autism and what people with special needs are capable of. But, there is still much more work to be done.

Ethan Walmark

Despite his outsized talent — indeed, the talent inside each and every special needs child — there are people who have commented on his video in ways that try to bring him down… mock him… or are just plain ignorant. Some recent internet comments include:

  • He should kill himself.
  • He’s fat and ugly.
  • He’s got no talent, no rhythm and no passion.
  • Does he have webbed fingers?
  • Does this kid have a neck?
  • What kind of idiot doesn’t use thumbs to play the piano?
  • He can’t play. He’s just hitting some lucky notes.
  • What a retard. I can play better.
  • I vote he’s got autism… I vote: ADD… I vote: Asperger’s… (Imagine… nameless, faceless people protected by anonymity, voting on my son’s condition as nonchalantly and callously as they would vote for a pizza topping!).
  • Finally, no less than five people have said, “He is clearly blind.”

Ethan is not blind. Nor does he have ADD. Or webbed fingers. Or mental retardation. (He is, however, as handsome a child as I’ve ever seen…) But, even if Ethan had any of those things, can one word or one condition ascribed by complete strangers define the heart and soul of my son? Can one word ascribed to any of us describe the heart and soul of who we are as individuals?

One of my favorite and powerful axioms is apropos, in light of people’s continued ignorance of special needs individuals, and tonight’s guest speaker. And that axiom is, “There are none so blind as those who will not see.”

Richard Bernstein

Tonight’s guest of honor, Richard Bernstein, is the epitome of what it means to succeed — and exceed — in every circumstance, time after time. Despite being blind — indeed, because he is blind — Richard both literally and figuratively cannot see obstacles; he can see only victory.

Legally blind since birth as a result of retinitis pigmentosa, Richard is a man amongst men. In high school, Richard:

  • Lettered in three sports.
  • Was starting high school Varsity quarterback for three years, and currently holds the record for touchdowns in a career.

For law school, he:

  • Fought the Law School Admissions Council against the “visual bias” of the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), claiming the test discriminates against the blind because of its requirements for interpreting visual material.
  • At the time he was admitted to — and subsequently graduated from Northwestern University School of Law — he was the only blind person in the law school.
  • Would memorize lectures and have notes read to him to memorize.
  • For tests, he memorized test questions and entire fact patterns some of which would be as long as five pages.

Richard joined the family law firm after graduation, and is licensed to practice law in both Michigan and New York.

Much of Richard’s legal work focuses on protecting the rights of people with disabilities, which is all done — to the surprise of no one — pro bono. Richard’s tenacity and passion forced Amazon to add audible menus and extra large fonts to make its e-books more accessible for blind and vision-impaired students.

If those accomplishments don’t make you feel completely inadequate, in his spare time, Richard runs marathons — 17 marathons to date, and completed the Ironman Triathlon in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho (he and a guide were connected by a rope). Richard has received recognition and awards for his legal, community and athletic pursuits.

When I see Ethan, age 7, and all that he has accomplished with autism, and I see Richard, and all that he has accomplished without sight, I have to wonder… maybe we — those of us termed “typical” are really the ones who are “disabled.” We go through life unchallenged… doing what is rote… sometimes doing what is easy rather than what is right… we are unchallenged by neurological and/or retinal disorders. Yet, Ethan and Richard have accomplished more in both of their lives than scores of people, combined.

Maybe Ethan and Richard are really the “abled” ones. Ethan and Richard seemingly live life to its fullest… without boundaries… their heart and souls programmed for love and happiness. How many of us can truthfully and with full heart say the same?

As a mother of a special needs child, my thanks and eternal gratitude to you, Richard. You have paved the path for special needs individuals in a multitude of ways. Because of you, our collective road to acceptance is much more smooth.

Next week: Life-lessons that Richard Bernstein teaches the world

More about autism

Imagine a world without autism
An ode to the birthday girl through the eyes of autism
Autism: You gotta be in it to win it


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