‘Opportunity for Innovation’

Disability rights advocate Haben Girma shares message of inclusion at PLA2020

February 29, 2020

Disability rights advocate Haben Girma (and her guide dog Milo) on stage at the Public Library Association 2020 Conference in Nashville February 28. (Photo: Laura Kinser/Kinser Studios)
Disability rights advocate Haben Girma (and her guide dog Milo) on stage at the Public Library Association 2020 Conference in Nashville February 28. Photo: Laura Kinser/Kinser Studios

Author, speaker, and disability rights advocate Haben Girma is the first deaf-blind person to graduate from Harvard Law School, and the path to get there wasn’t easy.

“I had to come up with alternative solutions to navigate this world—solutions for accessing books, conversations, how to make friends,” Girma told the crowd at the Public Library Association’s 2020 Conference in Nashville on February 28. “It was frustrating growing up in a world full of barriers.”

But Girma was clear that it was not her disability—nor being a black woman or the daughter of refugees from Ethiopia and Eritrea—that was a barrier. It was instead a world slow to embrace inclusion.

“Society is constantly setting limits on myself, and I have to choose to test those limits,” she said. “Inclusion means recognizing that people process things differently…. The dominant narrative that is that disability is a burden. I view it as an opportunity for innovation.”

Accompanied by her guide dog Milo and assistant Cameron (who typed audience reactions on a keyboard that outputs to a Braille display during her talk), Girma shared with the audience how she herself processes information through tactile intelligence, which includes activities rarely thought of as communication forms, such as salsa dancing and surfing.

“[Dance instructors] assumed I couldn’t participate,” said Girma, until she met one who wanted to teach her. “There was a blind dance instructor, and she taught me there were many different ways to access music.” She met the same resistance shopping for surfing lessons, until she finally found the one instructor who said, “’We’ve never heard of a deaf-blind surfer, but let’s try.’”

“Any program can be made accessible. It’s just up to the communities to do the work and choose to include people,” she said. “If you’re not sure, ask.”

Girma stressed that there are many things libraries can do to make their spaces and services more inclusive—not just for the estimated 60 million people in America who have disabilities, but for everyone. She cited the “curb-cut effect”—how an edge cut into an elevated curb doesn’t just benefit people with physical disabilities, but also those pushing strollers, rolling luggage, skateboarding, the entire community—as a means to broaden the view of accessibility.

Some changes libraries can make now? Girma suggested writing descriptions for images that are used in emails, newsletters, and websites; captioning programs; creating accessible video apps; and providing access to screen readers and assistive devices. “Tell your IT teams and web developer teams to invest in accessibility,” she said. “You’ll reach more people, you’ll make content more discoverable, you’ll drive innovation. If the person is still not convinced, tell them about the ADA.”

Girma is no stranger to the Americans with Disabilities Act. It has been the basis of lawsuits she’s filed as a civil rights attorney, and she first invoked its power as a student at Lewis and Clark College, when campus dining services refused to provide her with a menu in advance so that she could know what the food choices were.

“I did research and went back to the manager, and I explained the ADA prohibits discrimination, and said, ‘If you don’t provide access to the menu I’m going to take legal action.’” The manager apologized the next day, and the experience galvanized Girma as an advocate. “The next year a new blind student came to the college, and that taught me when I advocate, I help all the students that came after me.”

After all, “it’s people that create justice, communities that create justice,” Girma said.


From left: Melanie Toledo (at podium), Carolyn Petersen, and Janessa Esquivel.

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