“There are only two kinds of people in the world: the able-bodied and the disabled,” declared Joseph Bensmihen, and the sole difference between the two is that the latter does things more slowly.
“News flash: because you are able today, does not mean you will be tomorrow,” said the 49-year-old Montreal native, an outspoken advocate for the disabled, who was born with spastic cerebral palsy.
Bensmihen, who lives in St. Petersburg, Fla., where he runs his own home care business, was back in Montreal for a Shabbaton at The Adath synagogue, to mark Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month.
“I think I have proven it is society that is handicapped; the individual only has a disability,” he said.
Doctors warned his parents that he might never walk and certainly would not be able to attend a regular school. Between the ages of one and 16, he underwent 16 operations.
After a hard-won battle, Bensmihen attended a regular school and went on to earn a university degree, marry, have four children (including triplets), pursue a career, became a multimillionaire and run for both the Florida House of Representatives and U.S. Congress on the Republican ticket.
He uses two canes to get around – and punctuate his talks – and walked the Miami Marathon in 2016.
A gifted orator, Bensmihen “tells it like it is,” advising government and speaking throughout the United States. He just published his first self-help book, Taking Your Place at the Table: The Art of Refusing to Be an Outsider, which draws on his life story.
The Jewish community, he says, still has some distance to go to be fully inclusive.
“Don’t kid yourself, Judaism is not equitable,” said Bensmihen, an observant Jew who has a degree in social work from Yeshiva University. Though his faith is strong, Bensmihen said he has “gone toe-to-toe with God many times.”
Bensmihen credits his parents for giving him the confidence to be all that he could.
But even within his family, there were doubters. “I was six or seven and I heard my aunt say to my father, thinking I wouldn’t hear, ‘Thank God it did not happen to us.’ ”
For every A-hole in the world, there are beautiful people.
– Joseph Bensmihen
When he was six years old, at his insistence, his father took him to Ottawa, where somehow they tracked down Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Bensmihen pleaded his case that he should be allowed to attend the same school as his sister.
Five years later, Bensmihen became the first disabled child in Quebec to be “mainstreamed” into a public school, in Chomedey, Que., where he grew up. Some educators and bureaucrats did not believe he belonged there, arguing that he wouldn’t be able keep up. “I’m a cripple, not an idiot,” Bensmihen said with his typical bluntness.
By Grade 6, he wanted to get into Hebrew Academy, a Jewish day school, but was met with resistance there, too.
At the time, the school was located in Outremont. “We were told you can’t, it’s an old building, there’s four floors, no elevator,” he said.
Fortuitously, Hebrew Academy moved to a new low-rise building in Côte-St-Luc, and Bensmihen attended it from grades 6 through 11. He was the valedictorian of his 1987 graduating class, when he coined his lifelong motto, “Where others see obstacles, I see opportunities.”
“We exist and have the same thoughts and feelings as you, it just takes us a lot longer to do things,” he said.
Help the disabled if they appear to need it, he advises. “Be nice, but don’t act like you’re doing a good deed, that it’s an act of charity.”
Because you are able today, does not mean you will be tomorrow.
– Joseph Bensmihen
Until two years ago, Bensmihen avoided asking for help and was angered by condescension. Then he met Sabrina Cohen, a “gorgeous” woman who became a quadriplegic after an accident.
“She told me that for every A-hole in the world, there are beautiful people,” said Bensmihen. “The lesson was that only I will suffer if I don’t ask people to help me and it enhances my independence when I do.”
Rabbi Michael Whitman, Adath’s spiritual leader, is committed to making the synagogue accessible and welcoming to all.
The congregation has started a weekend program with the grassroots organization Club Alink that’s designed for young adults with special needs. Each Saturday, ALink participants will meet for Kiddush, alongside Adath members, and will go on outings in the afternoon. Basic cooking classes will also be held.
It’s a development that’s warmly welcomed by Club ALink founders and parents Harriet Sugar Miller and Helene Donath, who for the past couple of years have been working to create regular social and recreational weekend programming for young Jewish adults with disabilities.
On April 12, The Adath presents a conference, with Club ALink, called “Working Towards an Inclusive Jewish Community.” It will feature guest speaker Judy Zimlichman, a Montreal activist whose son was born 40 years ago with Williams syndrome, which causes physical and intellectual challenges. In 2016, she published the book, A Special Heart, an inspiring memoir of raising a child with special needs.