Haben Girma is an attorney and disability rights advocate. She was the first deafblind student to graduate from Harvard Law School and recently introduced President Barack Obama at the White House’s celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. She has been a staff attorney with Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) since 2015.
BPR: You found legal success in your case National Federation of the Blind v. Scribd, which ultimately mandated Scribd make all their online content accessible to the blind by 2017. What led to this victory and how do you plan to achieve further victories in the field of e-commerce?
HG: There was a survey conducted by the United Nations back in 2006 that found that 97 percent of websites around the world have access barriers for those with disabilities. That’s a huge number. It may be better now ten years since the survey was conducted, but most access barriers remain. At DRA, we are working to remove these online access barriers on behalf of different disability groups such as the National Federation of the Blind, the American Council of the Blind, and the San Francisco LightHouse for the Blind.
Digital access, however, is just one of many things that DRA does. We also deal with physical access barriers, addressing issues like broken sidewalks preventing those who need mobility aids from using them. We are currently working on case in New York City, where huge sections of the city lack curb cuts to allow wheelchair users to get on and off the sidewalk.
BPR: You recently gave a talk at Google titled, “Designing Technology with Accessibility in Mind.” How can new technology help those who are deaf and blind?
HG: Accessibility features should be mainstream. Rather than separate services for those with disabilities, we need to have mainstream digital services that have accessibility features built into them. For example, Apple’s iBooks is a reading app that blind, deaf, and deafblind people can use. Additionally, people with mobility disabilities who need specialized assistive technology can also interface with iBooks. Having mainstream apps that connect to assisted technology like iBooks is the goal, rather than having separate services, websites, and specialized programs for those with disabilities. We have learned from the racial justice movement that separate is never equal, and that is true for disability rights as well.
BPR: You have done great work fighting to expand the laws of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in e-commerce. What are the battles left to fight?
HG: There are so many. We hope more advocates will work on getting universities to provide reasonable accommodations to students. A lot of students are struggling to gain access to their reading materials or have professors make reasonable accommodations for the students to access information in the classroom.
A battle that remains is physical access. There are still many physical spaces, from government facilities to restaurants, that do not have accessible spaces. Many places still have stairs preventing people who use wheelchairs from accessing them. These access issues have persisted despite the fact that the ADA was passed in 1990. Even with new access issues such as digital access, old access issues such as physical mobility are still just as critical today.
BPR: What can universities like Brown do to fight against access barriers? How can students on campus get involved?
HG: Students at Brown should take a moment to look around the university and find out what is still inaccessible. Are there still physical spaces where wheelchair users can’t enter? Do professors and staff listen to students when they make requests for reasonable accommodations? From adjusting seats, providing captioning on videos, and printing material in an accessible format, what can be done varies depending on each specific student’s needs.
Another large issue is campus culture. There needs to exist a culture where everyone feels welcome and included. For example, does Brown offer disability studies and ask students to think critically about disability inclusion? Does the university bring in leaders to give presentations and teach students about disabilities’ roles in diversity and inclusion?
BPR: Your mother came to the United States as a refugee fleeing war in Eritrea. How did your family background affect your upbringing in the United States?
HG: When my mother fled Eritrea, it was struggling to gain independence from Ethiopia. My mother is an Eritrean refugee and my father is Ethiopian. From having family on both sides of the border, I learned early on in life … to see things through multiple perspectives and to see the nuances in complex conflicts. Eritreans struggled for 30 years to gain independence; that’s a powerful message. It shows that if you continue striving for your goals, you will get there eventually, even if it takes 30 years.
BPR: Logistically, how were you able to keep up with your peers both at Lewis and Clark and at Harvard Law? What were the hardest parts of school for you?
HG: At Lewis and Clark, there was a math professor who was not interested in making his class accessible and that was incredibly frustrating. I was considering a career in mathematics and computer science at the time and he did not want to make any reasonable accommodations. After talking to the school, I was allowed to have tutors outside of class help me, spent the semester studying with the tutors instead of attending class with the professor. That was not an ideal situation, and I ended up not going into a career in math or science because of it. Advocates have noticed that there are not many people with disabilities going into the sciences, and a big part of that is discrimination.
BPR: Was there a moment during your education when you wanted to give up? How did you respond and keep going?
HG: One instance I remember, which was discussed in my TED talk, was the cafeteria at Lewis & Clark not providing accessible menus, which prevented me from being able to choose what food I ate. During the first few months of college, I gave up on trying to get the university to provide accessible menus. I asked nicely and they weren’t doing it. What else could I do? It was incredibly frustrating. At the same time, it was just food. There were so many people around the world who didn’t even have food to make choices about. I felt stuck, and I felt like I couldn’t complain. Finally, I realized that if I worked [to convince the University to provide accessible menus] and made a difference, it wouldn’t only benefit me, but it would also benefit others in the community.
BPR: You have successfully pursued rock climbing, surfing, and kayaking. What’s next on your bucket list?
HG: The interesting thing about surfing, rock climbing, and kayaking is that I was not overcoming anything. Those activities aren’t really examples of overcoming adversity, they are examples of communities choosing to be accessible. There are many surfing schools throughout the U.S. that would say no if I asked for lessons, but I managed to find two surfing schools in San Diego that were open to being inclusive. The same thing with rock climbing and kayaking. The same thing with salsa dancing. With any kind of sport or activity, it’s about the community involved with that activity choosing to make it accessible. All the barriers that exist are socially created, so it’s important for communities to work towards inclusion by removing those barriers.