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January 01, 2013

January 2013: Janice Lehrer-Stein

Lawyer Faced with Progressive Blindness Transitions and Learns Creativity and Flexibility

Janice Lehrer-Stein currently serves as the Vice-Chair of the National Council on Disability (NCD).  The NCD is an independent federal agency that advises the President, Congress and government on disability policy.  Lehrer-Stein was appointed by President Obama and confirmed by the United States Senate in 2011.   Among her numerous responsibilities, which include engagement with stakeholders, inter-agency collaboration, and convening and participating in disability policy dialogue across the country, she works on NCD’s research reports, which make  recommendations for improving the lives of Americans with disabilities.  She recently worked on a report entitled, “Rocking the Cradle: Ensuring the Rights of Parents with Disabilities and their Children,” which  highlighted the hidden discrimination against parents with disabilities. As a parent with a disability to three children, she “is acutely aware of the difficulties parents with disabilities encounter.”.  Her experience is proof that parents with disabilities, like all parents, have the same innate ability to cherish their children and help them grow to become independent and responsible members of the next generation.

Lehrer-Stein graduated from the University Of Toronto School Of Law in 1981, which included a year as a visiting student at Harvard Law School.  In 1982, she was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, which causes progressive blindness.  She spent her first years out of law school in private practice, first at Shaw, Pittman, Potts and Trowbridge from 1981-83, and later at Thelen, Marrin, Johnson and Bridges from 1983-1987.

Reflecting on the impact that her loss of sight has had on her work, Lehrer Stein states that having a sensory disability can present challenges to  mobility, such as how to get to work, as well as  to work,  requiring use of assistive technology to read.  However, she credits her flexibility and creativity to her disability.  She also points to an additional benefit:  [M]y blindness has enhanced my concentrated ability to listen compassionately to individuals around me, and to encourage others, disabled or not, to be compassionate and generous members of the community.”

Today, Lehrer-Stein uses a cane and a service dog to assist her with mobility, and takes public transportation and taxis.  For work, she uses text to speech translation to read e-mail and documents via her Apple computer universal access system, and translates written documents to auditory communication by downloading them to her Kindle.  She uses similar technology on her cell phone.

As  Lehrer-Stein’s blindness  was progressive, she admits to having undergone  a series of, at times, difficult transitions, although they have never impeded her professionally.  “When you are facing blindness, the transition to a cane and dog is a difficult process, emotionally and sometimes physically.  Ten years ago, I realized I was no longer safe on the streets without assistance. . . .  For people who are going blind, it is often impossible to tell what you are not seeing, until you literally trip over it.”

Also, she gradually  lost the ability to perceive regular script and had to experiment with different sizes of fonts and colors, gradually adopting a reverse color scheme of white lettering on black background with large fonts and then, eventually adopting primarily a text to speech format.  And, Lehrer-Stein believes she is still transitioning. “While I am fully committed to use of the cane, the dog, and the assistive devices that enable me to live and work, creativity and flexibility are always necessary when facing new environments or work challenges.”

Lehrer-Stein hopes her story will encourage others who live with disability “to focus on the skills and talents that disability can, and has, taught them, and to provide a meaningful contribution to the personal and professional communities in which they live.”