Richard Bernstein … A True Inspiration!

This article was posted, by Richard Bernstein, on the Detroit News weblog on February 9, 2010.

Competing for inclusion in Israel

Sometimes I ask myself why I do it. Why would any human being in their right mind subject themselves to the pain, the suffering, and the punishment of Iron Man and triathlon competitions?

Then I cross the finish line, and I’m reminded of the answer. I am reminded of the amazing transformation that occurs right before my very eyes — a transformation not even my physical blindness can prevent me from seeing.

I was recently invited to Israel as a guest of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in my capacity as an international disability rights advocate and as an athlete. My two-week visit was to consist of giving speeches on a circuit of military bases throughout the country, speaking to soldiers and commanders about the importance of their physical training in conjunction with my accomplishments as a disabled athlete.

At the end of the two weeks, it was arranged for me to compete in a triathlon known as the Israman competition, in the presence of soldiers and commanders of the IDF, in hopes of inspiring them for the rigors of their future training. I was to be accompanied by an Israeli Air Force pilot who would serve as my guide for the triathlon. However, I soon discovered that the overall purpose of my visit was much more than I had initially realized.

The connection I made with my guide for the Israman triathlon was unlike any other I had ever experienced. I learned about his passion for helping those with disabilities and how he planned on improving opportunities for the disabled in his capacity as an Israeli Air Force pilot. In a nation like Israel where military service is compulsory and often the defining factor in the lives of young men and women, people with disabilities are prohibited to serve.

I was moved when my guide told me about how he had successfully enrolled a young man who was cognitively disabled to serve as a custodian in the military barracks. Although a modest duty, the young man took pride in completing his job every day and gained respect and admiration from his fellow soldiers.

My guide was also spearheading for the inclusion of citizens with disabilities into the military to provide greater opportunities for them later in their lives. The triathlon now took on an entirely new meaning; not only were we competing to inspire the soldiers, we were competing to change the military’s perspective on people with disabilities.

After completing a 1.2 mile swim, a 56-mile bike run uphill through the mountains of southern Israel, and a 13.1 mile run, I became the first blind person to ever complete the Israman competition in Israel. Even amidst the physical pain, I could feel a transformation of how people viewed people with disabilities.

With the help of the Israeli military, my guide, and athletic competition, I hoped I had begun to change the future for the people with disabilities in Israel for years to come.


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