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Blind attorney proves he's made of iron

  • Story Highlights
  • Blind attorney Richard Bernstein completes grueling Ironman triathlon
  • Represents disabled clients at no charge
  • Graduated from Northwestern University law school, teaches at U. of Michigan
  • American Foundation for the Blind estimates 21M in U.S. have vision problems
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By Philip Rosenbaum and Jonathan O'Beirne
CNN
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Richard Bernstein wins landmark lawsuits for the disabled. He teaches college. He runs marathons.

Richard Bernstein with his running guides  Hillary Benjamin,  Julie Winslow and Joy Cantilo.

Richard Bernstein with his running guides Hillary Benjamin, Julie Winslow and Joy Cantilo.

But you really get the sense there's no stopping him -- now or ever -- when you mix in the fact that Bernstein has been blind since birth.

"Once I appreciated why I was created and the way that I was created, it really just gave my life a true sense of meaning and that meaning really drove my energy and passion," Bernstein says.

A lawyer for disabled rights in Farmington Hills, Michigan, Bernstein recently scored one of his biggest personal victories outside the courtroom.

In the rough and tumble natural surroundings of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, Bernstein completed the physically and psychologically grueling Ironman triathlon.

In 14 hours and 36 minutes, without a break, Bernstein biked 112 miles, ran a 26.2 mile marathon and swam 2.4 miles in 55 degree open water. Video Watch Bernstein on the Ironman and other challenges »

"When you get into water that cold, what happens is your body goes into convulsions.''

The entire time he was tethered to a partner. Still, without sight, ''you're just swimming in this everlasting abyss. You don't know where the shore is,'' he said. "You don't know where anything is.''

He trained a year for this.

"I felt blessed God gave me a chance to finish it and reach the goal that I was so passionate to reach,'' Bernstein, 34, said, proudly wearing his "Ironman Finisher" medal around his neck, as if he had just won gold for the Americans in Beijing.

But for someone with Bernstein's spirit, Beijing and Coeur d'Alene are not a world apart. "Completing the Ironman for me was, I think, the most spiritual awakening I've ever experienced."

On Sunday, Bernstein ran the New York City Marathon for the fourth time, finishing in four hours, 49 minutes. It was Bernstein's tenth marathon -- including Los Angeles, Miami and Detroit - since he took up running four years ago. He says the sport has built his self-confidence as a lawyer and advocate.

Being blind makes marathons more than just a physical challenge. To prevent accidents and injury, Bernstein has to listen to his guide's every word every step of the way. "You have to be focused the entire time. The mental exertion is just incredible,'' Bernstein said hours after crossing the finish line.

Even the finish line is a far cry from what sighted people experience. "My guide will tell me the distance but there's a huge psychological difference between being told how far away the finish line is and seeing it."

Bernstein hopes his accomplishments inspire other disabled Americans to push themselves to achieve their dreams, no matter how big or small.

His goals are the same at work, where Bernstein feels blessed to have the resources and family support to work at no charge for the disabled, a large and diverse group that is often underrepresented and overlooked.

About one in five Americans has some sort of disability, according to government statistics. And the American Foundation for the Blind estimates more than 21 million Americans have some eye problems, ranging from mild vision loss to total blindness.

When you have a disability, Bernstein says, you don't know what each day is going to bring, so you live to the fullest. "You don't know what's going to happen when you cross the street.''

And for that reason, his life's work is focused on rights for the disabled. An adjunct professor of political science and social activism at the University of Michigan, Bernstein even went head-to-head with his employer in a lawsuit over its $226 million dollar football stadium renovations.

He sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act on behalf of the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America. As part of a settlement reached in March, the school is adding hundreds of wheelchair-accessible seats to Michigan Stadium. The school is also modifying restrooms, concession stands, concourses, parking and, for journalists, even the player locker rooms and coaches' offices.

In another well-publicized case, he challenged the city of Detroit, Michigan, to install wheelchair lifts in public buses -- and won.

Just becoming a lawyer was a major hurdle for Bernstein.

While studying law at Northwestern University, he hired someone to read aloud to him the seemingly endless reams of case studies. Unable to take notes, he made it through based solely on the power of his memory.

Even getting into law school was a fight. He refused to take the Law School Admissions Test because it contains charts and graphs. His undergraduate record from the University of Michigan -- where he graduated summa cum laude and with Phi Beta Kappa honors -- got him through Northwestern's door.

Indeed, Bernstein always makes a grand entrance. Ever ready with ebullient words of optimism about life and his surroundings, one of his pet phrases seems to be ''this is great.''

In an early fall interview in a New York courtyard garden that he excitedly called ''beautiful,'' Bernstein said, "When you have a severe disability, you tend to focus on life at its core."

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"I think when you have that kind of perspective you tend to live a little differently. You tend to really focus on your inner spirit in terms of where your inner spirit wants to go and what your inner spirit wants to do.''

"I'm so lucky. I live the greatest life."

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