Yosef Rubinoff has proven that having a disability does not prevent you from realizing your dream. It may temporarily halt the dream’s progress, but it is possible to rise after you have fallen, and most importantly, you should never, ever give up!
Seventeen years ago, it was just another day for then 21-year-old Yosef, who was at the time serving in the artillery section of the Israeli army. Growing up Jerusalem, his was a normal childhood and, like many of the young people in Israel, he got drafted into the army. One day, he was assigned to carry shells weighing 50 kilos each – four shells per minute, during an exercise. He became aware of an uncomfortable sensation in his back – something did not feel right. He mentioned this to his supervisors but they did not take him seriously, thinking his complaints were just a ploy to get out of the task at hand. Despite months of being in pain, Yosef pushed himself to continue his service, until one day during active duty he collapsed. Yosef was rushed to the doctor, who recommended immediate surgery, or run the risk of becoming paralyzed. There was no choice but to operate.
Yosef’s injury at the age of 21 has resulted in him not being able to sit. He can only lie down. Four surgeries later – two in Israel and two in the United States have given him the ability to position himself at a 45-degree angle, walk short distances with the use of crutches, stand for very short periods of time, and also ride a Segway to get around, but the majority of his days are spent in a prone position. Back and leg pain have been his constant, unrelenting companions. Medicines have become ineffective, so he has resigned himself to living with pain.
But Yosef had a dream. That dream was to become an attorney, and the pain he lived with every day, the unusual posture he was forced to maintain, the inability to navigate his way around the community in the accustomed vertical position society expects to see, was not a deterrent. He was prepared to fight for his right to be what he wanted to be, and fight he did!
After the injury which rendered him primarily horizontal, he was still able to swim and therefore worked part-time as a swimming instructor. However, he needed a permanent job, one that would allow him to be financially independent, provide for his family and give him the resources to pursue his dream of a law career. Finding employment, however, was extremely difficult. The general consensus from potential employers was, “if you can’t sit, you can’t work”. His job search spanned a demoralizing 10-year period, during which time he faced subtle and overt discrimination. By law, businesses in Israel must employ a certain percentage of people with disabilities, but even if they complied with that law, Yosef’s type of disability was not welcome and excuses for not being able to employ him were constantly made.
Throughout his painful, emotionally draining job-search, giving up was never an option, and Yosef’s perseverance paid off. He eventually found employment with the electric company in Israel. This company looked beyond his disability, beyond the adjustments they had to make to his work space to accommodate his recliner and saw him first, as a person. He works there only part of the day, but through the open-mindedness of this inclusive employer, he has regained his dignity and proven that one must never give up.
With one of his battles overcome, Yosef now faced another: his dream of becoming a lawyer. “How can it be?”, he was asked many times. “You cannot sit, or stand, you only lie down”. No schools were willing to accept him and some were not subtle about this – they just said no! But he persisted. “No” was not an answer he was willing to accept. Eventually, one school said yes and he was allowed to attend classes lying on his bed. Some of the lecturers were understanding and kind, but most were not, and Yosef endured much during that time. He remembers one in particular who publicly chided him asking whether he was not embarrassed to be lying in a class on a bed in full view of everyone. True, the comment hurt, but Yosef pressed on.
After 3.5 years, he completed his law studies, but yet another hurdle stood in his way. In order to be admitted to the bar, he needed to complete a period of internship with a law firm but again, his disability proved to be a hindrance – none would accept him. The requirement was 1 year of internship working full time. They pounced on his inability to work for an entire 8-hour work day and said “sorry, we can’t employ you”. But Yosef countered with, “instead of completing the internship in one year, if I’m allowed to work part-time because of my disability, I guarantee I’ll be able to complete the requirement in 1.5 years”. The answer was still no. Yosef did not give up. Through an organization that advocates for the rights of people with disabilities, he was eventually given the green light to work reduced hours to fulfill his internship requirement. Covid-19 has delayed the start of this job, but post-pandemic, he will embark on the next step of his legal journey.
Yosef’s story is one of resilience and of the determination to succeed no matter what the odds. For years, he has been emotionally brave but admits he has experienced depression, especially recently. What bothers him the most is that he is not able to play soccer with his kids or run around and have fun with them. He believes that for years he was in denial about his disability and this allowed him to press on, relentlessly. Recently, however, the pressures of the constant fight for basic rights have been a sad reminder that he does have a disability and that not being accepted by society may always be a part of his life.
The feelings of helplessness are never allowed to germinate. Yosef thrusts them aside and forges ahead as he reflects on the many things in his life that provide joy and happiness. He has a beautiful, supportive wife and three lovely children, 10, 7 and 2 years old. He is able to drive, albeit standing at a 45-degree angle. He gets around on a Segway. He participated in a half marathon while lying down on his hand bike. He recently embarked on a 2nd degree program – Managing Non-Profit Organizations. He just concluded a 4-week course that puts him in charge of accessibility for the electric company he works for. He found employment at a law firm where he will be able to complete his internship, post pandemic. He is also an author, having just completed his book detailing his journey. Written in Hebrew, it is called “Getting Up Again”, and will be available on Amazon.
Although oftentimes beset with sad thoughts, Yosef’s self-advocacy continues and he refuses to allow society’s barriers to prevent the achievement of his dream. He is almost there. Soon he will be a practicing lawyer and vows to be a passionate advocate for others, using his legal training to help the vulnerable. He understands first-hand the limitations faced by people with disabilities and the subtly disguised discrimination they often face. He will be their voice. He is optimistic about his future.
Yosef hopes his story will inspire others and show that no matter what life sends your way and the barriers society may erect, you can find a way, you can achieve your dream. Whether you walk, stand, sit or lie down, you must never give up!