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May 02, 2019

Kristin Fleschner

Kristin Fleschner, a graduate of Harvard Law School (2014), currently serves as a Foreign Affairs Officer with the US Department of State (DoS).  She began working at DoS as the advisor to the first Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons.  “I was really [the envoy’s] first staff member at the time of his appointment since his office was new, so I was filling out visas, writing speeches and prepping him for press interviews, preparing him for meetings with the most senior policymakers . . . and really doing everything he needed. It was an amazing opportunity.”  

Fleschner, who is legally blind, travels with the Envoy to many places around the globe, some of which were better at accommodations than others.  “[Some] embassies overseas had not had anyone show up with guide dogs, so . . . we definitely were setting precedent, and it was a lot of fun to introduce local staff members to a guide dog.”  Many people in the countries Fleschner visited had not seen blind people in more senior positions, traveling independently and confidently.  “One Minister was so proud and asked my ideas on how blind people in his country could move out of the warehouse and go to schools like Harvard.”

At DOS, Fleschner works primarily on human rights issues.  She held the pen on the State Department’s strategy on hate crimes, which became the blueprint for the White House’s strategy on hate crimes.  When not working, traveling or running marathons, Fleschner spends most of her free time on disability issues.  She is writing a book about her experiences, and often speaks publically to educators, government agencies, and others about disabilities and the rights of persons with disabilities.  Nevertheless, Fleschner recognizes the value and importance of not allowing herself to be reduced to her disability in her professional life.  “I do think that someone who has a disability working at a job not related to the disability makes an important statement. I can make a huge statement about disability during my workday without talking about it, by being an outstanding employee and showing my colleagues and bosses that blindness isn’t a barrier.  In fact, it can be an asset.  Someday, I will work on these issues full-time, but I am certainly making a difference now, even though it isn’t in my job title.”

Fleschner became legally blind as a young adult.  She was delayed in taking the LSAT when she ended up having an organ transplant on the day of her planned LSAT and then began experiencing vision loss soon after the surgery.  Eventually, she took the test and earned admission to several law schools.  She initially had her heart set on attending a special two-year program close to her family, but was told that it could not properly accommodate a student with her disability.  After she realized it wasn’t a good fit, she submitted a late application to Harvard and was accepted.  On the visit to the school she immediately knew it was the perfect fit.  “Harvard knew exactly what to do in terms of accommodations.  Since my blindness was new, I did not know what to expect. . . . . They taught me what was fair, what to expect, and even when I should expect more of them.  We worked through some difficult issues, but I could not speak higher of an institution regarding accommodation issues.”

While in law school, Fleschner co-directed and starred in a short documentary, “Blind Ambition,” about her life as a law student with a disability, featuring interviews with fellow students, professors, and her family.  “The goal of my documentary is to show that disability is just something that happens to someone, and you just figure out another way of putting clothes together, or going to Starbucks, or making flashcards, or taking exams.  It’s meant to show that blindness is like any other challenge that one might face in life. . . . Oftentimes, people say, ‘I could never be blind.  It would be horrible.’  The documentary is meant to show that we are resilient humans.  Blind individuals do everything that you do, we just do it differently.”  

Fleschner has discovered an additional means of painting a picture of life with legal blindness:  her Seeing Eye dog and constant companion, Zoe.  “When I started doing advocacy on blindness, people were asking the majority of questions about Zoe, and fewer questions about assistive technology and other things I wanted to talk about.”  Zoe now has her own Facebook page, which has nearly 7,000 followers to date, where visitors ask Zoe questions about blindness, her life as a Seeing Eye dog, and other things.  “People don’t want to offend the disabled person.  They are afraid to ask you the question, so they ask the dog instead.”  Fleschner is writing a book in Zoe’s voice about being a Seeing Eye dog, which is currently in the editing stage.

Fleschner uses a screen reader, a software application that converts text into speech.  “Access to information, especially on the internet, remains the greatest barrier to people with visual impairments. People with disabilities represent the largest minority group, numbering 1 billon worldwide.  App developers that can reach a group of this scale are really winning for everyone.”  She acknowledges that people are learning, especially in the startup community, to build their websites with accessibility in mind, but says a lot more remains to be done.  Fleschner points out that her preference is “a setup with touchscreens, which reads where you touch, and a keyboard, because you can work around everything that’s not coded, but we aren’t there yet in many settings – there are so many things that aren’t coded correctly, and then you’re stuck.”

Fleschner views her disability as a positive in her life.  She believes that she and others with disabilities have gained unique and valuable experiences, skills, and perspective because of their disabilities.  “Blindness has made me one of the best problem solvers around, because you always have to be figuring out how to find the bathroom in a new building, or how to order off a menu. . . . it’s a constant game of problem solving, but it’s not a panicked game. . . . it’s just ingrained in how you think and that transfers into your everyday work environment.”  Her disability has also made her more empathetic.  “Clients want someone who really listens, and understands their problems, and can problem-solve, and that’s what I have to do every day.  I can’t imagine who I would be without my disability, but I am proud of the person it has created and dreams of a career where I will always be helping others in one way or another.”