Examining the Power of Section 504: From a Diplomat’s Perspective

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Deputy Assistant Secretary and Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons, Randy Berry gives a statement in the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. Zoe, the author's seeing eye dog, is sitting behind him.
Deputy Assistant Secretary and Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons, Randy Berry gives a statement in the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. Zoe, the Seeing Eye dog, is sitting behind him.

Examining the Power of Section 504: From a Diplomat’s Perspective

This month people across the United States are celebrating the first civil rights law that protected Americans with disabilities: Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Written into law in 1977 after historic activism by the disability community and leaders, such as Judith Heumann, Section 504 says that no program receiving federal funds may discriminate against a person with a disability.  

I became disabled a few years ago after an organ transplant left me blind. I’ve read about the historic battles for Section 504, and though I did not live through them, I have had first-hand experience of employment discrimination and know why such laws are necessary. When I think of how these laws affect me on a daily basis, I think of the reasonable accommodations that have allowed me to serve in the U.S. Department of State.  For example, I use a screen-reader computer program that allows me to email, review reports, and write papers.  When I head to a meeting, I ask the organizer for the agenda and handouts in an electronic format ahead of time, so I can access using this special software. I use a Department-issued iPhone that has built-in voiceover technology that is easy for blind people to use. A keyboard that hooks up to my iPhone allows me to take notes in meetings, read documents, and reply to emails when I am on-the-go. If a website is not accessible for screen-readers, or if I receive a hard copy document in a meeting, the Department’s Disability and Reasonable Accommodations Division (HR/OAA/DRAD) will send a “human reader” to help. All of these accommodations are made possible through Section 504.

Kristin Fleschner and Zoe, her Seeing Eye dog, stand outside the Oval Office of the White House in 2016. Both Kristin and Zoe are looking at the camera, behind them is them the doors are close and the seal is shining bright above the door.

I also use a guide dog for mobility purposes. When traveling overseas, I work with our embassies to get her “imported,” and ensure that we will have access to hotels and restaurants.  It is often an excellent learning opportunity for everyone involved, including our own embassy staff or senior officials who have not worked with a blind person before.  In one meeting with a foreign minister, I was asked where I went to school. When I told him Vanderbilt University and Harvard Law, he was silent for almost a minute, and then told me that blind persons in his country are kept in warehouses. He asked how this could be changed, and I explained to him the concept of Section 504 and accommodations.

People with disabilities are people you want to accommodate and hire, as they have faced overcome more challenges than most people. Because of this, they are skilled problem solvers, networkers, and negotiators.  This is proven every day as blind persons have to find bathrooms in an unknown building, as wheelchair users navigate train stations without lifts, and as activists fight for legal protections – as they did in 1977, when a 28-day occupation of San Francisco’s federal building by over 150 disabled persons led to the signing of Section 504.

The pendulum has swung since the signing of Section 504 over 40 years ago. Yet even if it hasn’t made it all the way to the other side, many people are still working to make sure it makes it all the way, and stays there.

About the Author: Kristin Fleschner serves as a Foreign Affairs Officer in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at the U.S. Department of State.

Editor's Note: Kristin Fleschner is a 2014 graduate of Harvard Law School where she co-directed “Blind Ambition,” a documentary about her experiences and those of other Harvard Law students who are blind or visually impaired.

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