Walking tall: Disabled student now leads way for others

As the Campanile serenades the U.C. Berkeley campus with its 61 bells during the noontime hour, junior 
Sam Rubin makes his way toward the library. It’s an otherworldly beautiful day, and outfitted in jeans, a jacket and a scarf, Rubin stands out a bit from his fellow students (short shorts and flip-flops are de rigueur on the campus these days).

And yet, his sartorial sense is the only way in which he stands out. And, come to think of it, that’s an amazing thing.

Twenty-two years ago, Rubin was born in San Francisco with spina bifida — meaning his spinal cord was incompletely formed and protruded out of his back. As a result, beneath the baggy pants he wears even on hot days, he has two sturdy braces on each leg. He keeps his books in a briefcase on wheels, which he occasionally leans on for support.

As a child, spinal fluid drained into his head and his skull swelled.

“That’s why my head is so big,” he says with a laugh while doffing his newsboy cap. “I wear extra-large hats.”

He’s also leapt some extra-large hurdles. Statistics compiled by the Jewish Vocational Service reveal that only 26 percent of working-age adults with disabilities hold down jobs — as opposed to 82 percent of the population at large.

And, for many years, it appeared Rubin — who is Jewish and grew up attending Or Shalom in San Francisco along with his parents and three siblings — was headed toward this path as well. By the time he got to high school, a lifetime of teasing had taken its toll. Rubin admits that he often didn’t even wait for it anymore and picked his own fights.

“I really didn’t have any plans to go to college at all. I got into a lot of trouble — I was kind of a violent person. It’s not something I’m proud of,” he says, his eyes directed at the ground.

When he graduated from high school, he enrolled at City College of San Francisco and began taking computer courses at JVS in S.F. And while the instruction was welcome — and now, certainly, Rubin can whip out a wicked PowerPoint presentation — his time at JVS was about more than that.

JVS helped him land a job at Peet’s Coffee (“the crazy busy one on Second and Mission”) and opened doors for him into government and public service. An internship at the Independent Living Center led to his current position on the executive board. He was appointed by Mayor Gavin Newsom to serve on the city’s Youth Commission; he admits with a grin that he’s no fan of the mayor politically, but his official appointment letter “was signed personally with a Sharpie — so that’s pretty cool.”

As a city commissioner, Rubin helped to shoot down proposed legislation that would have established curfews for teens (he claims it was unclear whether children picked up by police would be locked in cells or simply made to sit in a rec room) and negotiated with Muni on a discounted monthly pass for young adults.

On top of all of that, Rubin works with the city’s Improving Transitions Outcomes Project (ITOP), through which he hopes to bring instruction of the sort he received at JVS to 14-to-25-year-olds throughout the city. He also wants to reach out to fellow disabled youth.

“It’s really common for people to discourage them from doing anything, going to school or even, in the extreme, leaving the house,” he says.

“There was one guy who was afraid to join [ITOP] because he knew that his mother didn’t want him out of the house at all. She was really afraid and very protective.”

When Rubin was scuffling through life earlier this decade, he never thought he’d one day be majoring in geography at U.C. Berkeley. It didn’t come easy — and it never gets easier.

“I’m still a work in progress. People who have always done well, everything comes naturally to them and they know how to study perfectly and get straight A’s — for me, I have to work incredibly hard to get good grades. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed,” he says, glancing at the imposing classical architecture of the nearby Valley Life Sciences Building.

“But I guess I’ll always figure things out.”

He smiles.

“When I had my job counseling [at JVS], I think my path sort of unfolded. I could understand how to get to different places and how to use my options. It inspired me to get involved in social programs — programs that help people to live fuller lives.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.