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For Students With Special Needs, ‘Impossible Thoughts’ Can Become Reality

Reviewing: Taking Your Place at the Table: The Art of Refusing to Be an Outsider, by Joseph JB Bensmihen. ISBN: 9781683504528, Morgan James Publishing, 2018.

Joseph Bensmihen, best known as JB, describes his life from the time he was a young child who had been diagnosed with cerebral palsy. However, in order to fully appreciate his story, which documents his desire and determination as a young child to be accepted despite his handicap, one must know something about the JB’s personality and charisma.

As it happens, JB grew up in a suburb of Montreal, and this reviewer had the privilege of knowing his mother from many years ago when we met at a support group for mothers of children with cerebral palsy. Mrs Bensmihen and I were in totally different places as her son, then known by his French name, Serge, was mentally and educationally on par with others of his age. His disability was totally a physical one. To this day, he walks with two canes.

JB asked of his parents, as is described in the book, “Why do I have to go to a special school? My brain works fine. My mouth and ears and and eyes work fine. I don’t pee in my pants. I just walk funny.” Unfortunately the local school board did not see it that way. When told by his father that the government in Ottawa had made most of the laws pertaining to special education, JB decided that he would like to go to meet with the Prime Minister of Canada in Ottawa. One thing that was in their favor, when they arrived at the building housing Mr. Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s office, was that most guards do not stop anyone walking together with a young boy with leg braces and two canes. None of the security guards could think of stopping a 6-year-old who together with his father was on a specific mission. They walked directly into the receptionist’s office of the prime minister and while standing there the prime minister walked out of his office.

He asked his receptionist just what was going on and was answered by this young, persistent 6-year-old who said, “I want to talk to you about my school.” While others standing around the prime minister were perturbed and disturbed, Mr Trudeau himself invited Joseph and his father into his office. It took a year until finally the local school board, together with the encouragement of the prime minister, changed the rule in order to allow Joseph to go to a regular school.

This incident is only one very small occasion that JB decided that, just because of his handicap, he did not deserve to be isolated from the “normal world.” He learned to never take no for an answer.

He suffered through his first years of elementary school with many of the teaching staff intent on making the point that he did not belong in a “regular” class. In 1981, as he was about to enter grade six, he was determined to go to a Jewish school. He and his family were shomer Shabbat.

The Hebrew Academy of Montreal accepted him as the first student ever to have such challenges within its walls. He climbed the four stories in the school each day and with the encouragement of some teachers, whom he considers his angels, and graduated as the French valedictorian from high school, chosen by his peers. (There are three valedictory addresses in Quebec Jewish schools: English, Hebrew and French.) He also received the midot tovot award for exemplary kindness and conduct. An additional award was created that year for community service, which he received acclaiming his activism on behalf Ethiopian and Soviet Jewry.

JB continued on to his studies at Yeshiva University, where he today sits on the Board of Overseers. He sits as well on many other corporate boards. He has a master’s degree in social work and became a social worker for the city of Deerfield Beach, Florida. He was the CEO of a very successful business. His family lived in Boca where he sat as the president of the Boca Raton Synagogue for two years. He has many other accomplishments as well, though he has had some serious hiccups along the way, some of his own doing and others as a result of life’s challenges.

He and his wife, Lisa, are divorced and he remains extremely attached to his four children.

He has had political aspirations and is now at the helm of a new business, Care at Home Florida, in St. Petersburg, Florida.

JB’s story is one of inspiration and determination, and he powerfully suggests the way for people to allow doors to be open for them despite great hurdles.

From the time that I met Alegrina Bensmihen at a support meeting for mothers of children with cerebral palsy at the Montreal Children’s Hospital in 1971, I have observed and taken great pride in the enormous steps that JB took for himself, and in fact for the entire special needs community, in Montreal. He refused to take no for an answer and this is a mantra that all families involved with special needs should adopt. I recommend that you read his book, which is available on Amazon.

It should make one realize that with determination many “impossible” thoughts can become realities.

By Nina Glick

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