Supreme Court justice on tour to urge employing people with disabilities

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LEGAL NEWS PHOTOS  BY CYNTHIA PRCE

Photo 1: Moderator Andrew Johnston, Vice President of Government and Corporate Affairs, Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, at left, acted as moderator for panelists, left to right, Jill Day of Gordon Food Service; Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley; Gerald Deruiter of Hope Network; and Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein.

Photo 2: Justice Bernstein listened carefully to dozens of participants after the panel.

Photo 3: Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley   

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

There is something empowering about having a distinguished and powerful individual identify so closely with the group often termed “people with disabilities” that he uses the words “we” and “us” in talking about that group.

When that individual is newest Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein, who is legally blind, that empathy extends to  an easy approachability, down-to-earth listening skills, and a desire to use his position to better lives.

Justice Bernstein teamed up with Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, also no stranger to the struggles people with disabilities may face, due to his daughter’s autism.

The two are conducting the MI Hidden Talent tour urging business leaders to be intentional about employing people with disabilities.?On Monday, they came to Hope Network’s 36th St. facility to speak to the Grand Rapids community.

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce is assisting with the tour, and Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce Vice President of Government and Corporate Affairs Andrew Johnston moderated.
The benefits of hiring people with disabilities, both Bernstein and Calley said, will be felt by both the new employees and the companies employing them.

Commented Justice Bernstein, “What we’ve gone through has built strength in us. Our life experience makes us outstanding employees who are ready, able and enthusiastically passionate about the chance to come and work with you.”

And Calley added, “There may be a small initial investment for accommodations when you employ people with disabilities but their turnover rate is way better — they’re going to stick with you. So there are a lot of reasons why this makes good business sense, and it’s a game changer.”

Another benefit is increased loyalty on the part of other employees. Jill Day, who has pioneered a program hiring people with disabilities at Gordon Food Service, says that when she gives new hires a tour, they notice and ask about a quadriplegic employee who is in a highly visible accommodated work station.  “They’ll turn to me and say, ‘Boy, that just really solidifies in my mind that you are who you say you are.’ It’s heartwarming for me to know that people genuinely care about what their company is doing to make a difference,” Day said.

Justice Bernstein commented, “I love Jill’s last statements. Yes, employees want to be a part of something bigger and grander than themselves. It gives people a sense of pride to know they are part of a company that’s mission-oriented. It creates a sense of morale and excitement.”

Day is a member of the Hope Network Business Council, which helps companies wanting to hire those with disabilities. She and others present testified to the big difference made by job coaches Hope Network offers. Gerald Deruiter, Hope Network’s Executive Director, said he wants to spread the word that there are resources in the community willing to help.

Dave Bulkowski of Disability Advocates of Kent County said, during question and comment time after the panel, that he is sensitive to the fact that Human Resource professionals may not want to get calls from each agency, and noted that the state is facilitating a potential collaboration between agencies to have a central source for available employees in each geographic area.

Bernstein, who admitted that as a former trial attorney he loves to tell stories, said that upon his election, he asked for an accommodation at the court which, it developed, the other justices also like.

In order to participate freely in discussion as decisions are being made, Justice Bernstein spends about 15 hours a day memorizing each case being considered. Because he needs an “oral trigger,” he asked if one of the commissioners could read the procedural history of each case. He said other justices have told him that they find that practice very positive. “That quick little break that we take lets them catch their breath,” he says.

Bernstein was very upbeat about the future for people with disabilities, and said he loved doing this tour with Lt. Gov. Calley. “The excitement and enthusiasm we’ve run into truly makes you proud to be a Michiganian,” he commented, then added, “Grand Rapids is an amazing community. You’ve always cared about this and you’ve always done what is right for people with disabilities.”
After the event, he reiterated that he found Grand Rapids wonderfully welcoming. “It’s hard to put in words, but it feels good here.”

When asked if he participates in the State Bar of Michigan Disabilities Project, he said, “I used to, along with a  whole lot of other things around the state. But since I became a Supreme Court Justice, I’ve had to cut back.” He added with a smile, “Those 15 hours of study make it hard.”