Fighting for the rights of disabled Americans: Janni Lehrer-Stein ’78 B.A.

Janni Lehrer-Stein as a Yale undergraduate and today
Left: Janni Lehrer-Stein as a Yale undergraduate; right: Lehrer-Stein as a prominent disability rights advocate today.

When Janni Lehrer-Stein ’78 B.A. came to Yale in 1975 from Saskatchewan, Canada, she dreamed of becoming a lawyer. And over the next few years her life seemed to unfold just as she had planned.

While at Yale, she interned for a criminal defense attorney and learned the ins and outs of running a solo law practice. Following graduation, she earned a law degree from the University of Toronto Law School. She married her college sweetheart and fellow lawyer, Lenny Stein ’78 B.A./M.A., and they moved to Washington, D.C. where she launched her career as a trial lawyer. 

Then, at age 26, six months after the couple had started this new chapter, Lehrer-Stein received a devastating diagnosis. What she thought was an eye infection was in fact retinitis pigmentosa, a progressive degenerative eye disease that would lead to permanent blindness.

I questioned everything,” she said recently. “Could I be a good attorney? A good wife and mother? My adjustment to my disability included learning how to make it part of my identity but not define me.” 

As Lehrer-Stein learned to navigate the world, and motherhood, as a blind person — raising three young children in the early stages of her blindness — she discovered just how difficult it was to manage day-to-day tasks with a disability, and how hard a disabled person had to fight to obtain equal treatment. 

But a new life path also emerged: She would use her legal skills, and her passion for advocacy, to fight for the rights of disabled Americans. “It was the community of Americans with disabilities who attracted me to advocacy,” she said. 

Lehrer-Stein’s reflections on her time at Yale and work as a disability rights advocate are featured in a new book, “Remembering 50,” a collection of stories from trailblazing women from Yale’s first coed undergraduate classes. A virtual book launch will be held Sept. 10, 7:30 to 9 p.m. 

The book was curated and collected by students from the Yale Women’s Leadership Initiative in support of the 50WomenAtYale150 initiative, a year-long commemoration of 50 years of coeducation and 150 years of women at Yale. 

Over the past three decades, Lehrer-Stein has become a sought-after advocate for the rights of the disabled, serving two terms on the National Council on Disability under President Obama, and as a senior disability adviser to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

She’s currently serving a four-year term as vice chair of finance for the Democratic National Committee Disability Council and was a member of the rules committee for the 2020 Democratic National Convention.  

Lehrer-Stein said she has seen huge strides in disability protections since her diagnosis — in particular, the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, which prohibits employers from discriminating based on disability and requires that state and local buildings and activities be accessible. The law marked its 30th anniversary in July. “A whole generation of people has grown up with those protections,” she said. “And there’s been a culture shift—our culture is much more inclusive of people with disabilities.” 

But there are still places, she noted, where disabled people should be more fully included, university and college campuses among them. At a recent panel, hosted by the affinity group DiversAbility at Yale, Lehrer-Stein moderated a conversation about how students with disabilities should be given greater access to college sports teams.

Students with disabilities belong in mainstream sports arenas,” she said. “There are football players with one arm, and other professional athletes with deafness and blindness. I’m hoping in the future that college sports will provide greater access to these athletes.” 

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