People with disabilities are no different from anyone else. We all have strengths and challenges, and we all seek to be fully engaged in society. Treating blind people differently, either as incapable of conducting everyday tasks in life, or conversely, acting as though our ability to conduct even the most mundane chore is remarkable can be discouraging.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Janni Lehrer-Stein, disability rights advocate and retired attorney. Janni has become blind over time by a progressive retinal degenerative disease. She was appointed by President Barack Obama and served two terms on the National Council on Disability (NCD). Janni served as Senior Disability Advisor to the Hillary for America 2016 campaign, and has consulted with and helped formulate disability policy for national and state campaigns. She is a member of the National Academy of Science, Engineering and Medicine Forum on Aging and Disability and a member the national Board of Directors of the Foundation Fighting Blindness. In 2017, she was elected to a four-year term as vice chair, Finance, for the Democratic National Committee Disability Council.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Janni! What is your “backstory”?
I received my undergraduate degree at Yale University and then got a law degree from the University of Toronto Law School, with a visiting year at Harvard Law School. I practiced law in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. I was diagnosed with a retinal disease at age 26, which led to me becoming engaged with disabilities rights advocacy, which has been my career and passion ever since.
Can you share the story of how you became blind, and what you did to not let it stop you?
I had no idea that I was going blind. In the winter of 1982, six months after I married my husband Lenny and had begun my dream career as a trial lawyer in Washington D.C., I woke up with an annoying eye infection. The ophthalmologist who examined me confirmed that I had a slight infection, but then told me the words that changed my life forever. He said that my retinas showed signs of a progressive degenerative disease and that I would go blind, perhaps within the next six months. He then said, I should not worry too much about that, because people like me usually get hit by a bus before they go totally blind!
I was shocked, of course, confused about what my future would hold and whether my dreams were still possible. I had worked hard at Yale as an undergraduate, then at University of Toronto Law School and at Harvard to obtain my law degree. Starting work at a top law firm in Washington was a privilege that I hoped would launch my career as a trial lawyer, and my recent marriage held so much promise to share my life with my husband and build a family. I questioned it all. What kind of lawyer could I be if I couldn’t see? Could I become a mother? What would the drastic changes to my life mean in terms of all that I had worked and hoped for?
Fortunately, I quickly discovered that the doctor’s gloomy prediction was inaccurate. Yes, I would go blind over time, but thankfully, it has taken many years, not a few brief months. So far, I have managed to stay out of traffic and avoid that bus! More importantly, I learned that losing my vision is simply that. It has never defined me and, over time, I have learned to adjust to and live with my disability. Becoming blind has presented many challenges, but I have lived my life as fully as before, with accommodations for my blindness. I was able to have a successful legal career, raise a wonderful family, and become an advocate for the 61 million Americans who, like me, are challenged by disability.
Can you tell us about the accomplishments you have been able to make despite your blindness?
While the Americans with Disabilities Act, (ADA) will celebrate its 30th anniversary in July 2020, full inclusion for Americans with disabilities remains out of reach. Promoting inclusion and equal opportunities for Americans with disabilities became my passionate commitment from the moment of my diagnosis. In 2011, I was privileged to be appointed to the National Council on Disability by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the United States Senate. In my two terms on the NCD, I served as Vice Chair for almost two years, chaired several committees, and worked on important projects including the creation of accessible currency, reducing the backlog of benefits claims to veterans returning from combat with complex disabilities, asserting parenting rights for the disabled, and seeking inclusion for Americans with disabilities in transportation, housing and employment.
During the 2016 election cycle, I served as a Senior Disability Policy Advisor for the Hillary for America campaign, leading teams of over 350 stakeholders and experts to develop policy, to raise funds and to get out the vote. Since that time, I have proudly contributed policy and fund-raising support to many Democratic candidates, and serve now as the Vice Chair, Finance, for the Democratic National Committee Disability Council, which was established in 2017.
But the accomplishment I am most proud of is my family, with three wonderful children, who are now adults contributing to their communities and raising families of their own.
What advice would you give to other people who have disabilities or limitations?
While every life journey is different, my advice is to understand your own power and potential. Blindness did not prevent me from having a successful career as an attorney and as a disability policy advocate or from raising my family. I have lived like everyone else, finding a path towards making contributions to my family, community, and country. So my advice is to live your life and never relinquish your dreams.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
There are many who have supported me throughout my life. My family has stood by me at every step. I have been privileged to work with so many iconic figures in the disability community, most notably Tony Coelho, who was instrumental in securing the passage of the ADA. I am grateful to the DNC, its Chairman Tom Perez, and my colleagues in the disability community who work hard every day to achieve full inclusion for Americans with disabilities. Shiloh, my trusty guide dog that I received from Guide Dogs for the Blind, completes the circle of love and support, keeping me safe. He is always right by my side to help me navigate the world.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
During my two-term a chair with the National Council on Disability, we produced groundbreaking analyses of disability rights issues, including parenting rights, veterans’ benefits and implications of advancing technology as it relates to disabilities. I’ve helped craft disability policies that ended up improving the lives of millions of disabled people. On a smaller scale, my work as a disability rights advocate has helped give other individuals the tools they needed to effect change for the better in their own communities.
Can you share “5 things I wish people understood or knew about people with physical limitations” and why.
My top five includes:
1. People with disabilities are no different from anyone else. We all have strengths and challenges, and we all seek to be fully engaged in society. Treating blind people differently, either as incapable of conducting everyday tasks in life, or conversely, acting as though our ability to conduct even the most mundane chore is remarkable can be discouraging.
2. The best way to offer assistance to someone with a disability is to ask, “How may I best assist you”? This respects our dignity and validates that we know best how to manage our own lives.
3. Please do not touch or engage with a blind or low vision person’s guide dog. Dogs wearing an ADA harness are highly trained professionals, taking their job of helping blind people navigate very seriously. We rely on them for our safety. They are adorable, of course! Interacting with a working guide dog, or allowing your pet to do so, will distract them and potentially endanger their blind or low vision team partner.
4. Accommodations like allowing guide dogs to travel on board planes, early boarding for planes and trains, and generally, facilitating accommodations for people with disabilities is important to ensure that we are safe and fully included in society. While it may be frustrating to wait, or to have to crate your pet while a guide dog sits patiently at his owner’s feet with the other passengers, these accommodations are essential to inclusion and almost never cause delay or disturbance.
5. People who are blind or low vision are equally capable members of our society, who are as eager as anyone else to fully engage in everything that life has to offer. It is deeply significant, and good for everyone, if disabled people are included in all activities and are able to contribute to the fabric of American life like everyone else.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
My favorite life lesson quote is “You make your own good time”. By this, I mean that disabled or not, our lives take the path that we choose and work hard to achieve. We are ultimately responsible for what we do and what we contribute.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this 🙂
My heroines are an unlikely combination-Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Madonna! Ruth Bader Ginsburg shows that a total commitment to my belief that women in America can change history. Her lifelong work to define women’s rights and her many thoughtful decisions in the United States Supreme Court will leave a positive legacy for every generation that follows her. And well, yes, Madonna has shown, before so many in her time, that a woman has the ability to make, excel at, and brand an entire industry with her own talent, pushing past social expectations and norms, to communicate her unique and powerful message to the world.