Haben Girma: How did a deafblind woman conquer Harvard Law? | The Stream

Haben Girma: How did a deafblind woman conquer Harvard Law? | The Stream

[Music playing] Hi I’m Femi Oke and I’m Malika Bilal and you’re in the Stream. Today Making the world a more accessible and inclusive place for people with disabilities We’ll talk about that with disability rights attorney Haben Girma. And we want to hear your questions and your comments on improving accessibility Tweet them to us at AJStream or share them in our live YouTube chat In a new memoir Haben Girma, the first deafblind graduate of Harvard Law School reflects on childhood, her Eritrean Ethiopian identity, and journey to becoming an outspoken advocate for disability rights. While a student at Harvard, Girma helped develop the digital Braille device that allows her to read information Typed to her through a computer keyboard Today she travels around the world Promoting a message of inclusivity and shares her life experiences as a deafblind black woman and a child of refugees. Girma has received honours from leaders including former US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel She has also become one of the leading voices in improving the accessibility of the digital world. Girma’s life so far is told in the book “Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law”. Haben Girma joins us today with her typist Claire Baldi. Also, our viewers might notice the box in the corner of the screen today, and that is because our conversation is being interpreted in American Sign Language. Haben, everyone, welcome to the Stream. All right, I’m gonna get started with a beautiful picture that you shared yourself on Father’s Day which is a picture of your dad and he’s reading and He’s asleep And you’re asleep Lying on top of him and he’s trying to read and it just gave us some insight into the closeness that you have with your parents Can you tell us more about that? Yes, so my parents love and adore me they also are a little protective like many parents and growing up, we struggled with the challenge of my parents wanting to keep me safe and protected and me wanting to experience as much as the world as possible I’m deafblind I have limited vision and hearing and there are a lot of negative stereotypes about what people with disabilities can and can’t do and That’s the heart of the arguments I’ve had with my parents growing up There was a situation where I wanted to help build a school in Mali, West Africa and my parents said no, it’s not safe. And I told them you are from Africa my dad grew up in Ethiopia My mom grew up in Eritrea. How can they tell me it’s not safe? It was because they were feeling protective as parents. It had nothing to do with Africa Even if I was building a school in say Montana, I’m sure they would have told me no, it’s not safe. So I tried and this is a story of advocacy. So I advocated and I told them I know my abilities. I know what I can and can’t do and I can build a school and they still said no. I was really frustrated. I’m sure lots of kids can relate to this of wanting to do something and your parents saying no. So I asked myself. How can I convince them? They’re not believing me even though I feel like an expert when it comes to my abilities So I asked myself who else can help convince them that I can do this So we brought in the programme manager who takes students to developing countries to help build schools and She sat down at lunch with me and my parent and they asked her How can Haben build a school? She can’t see. How would that work? And the manager told them, I don’t know but we’ll try. We’ll find a way. It’s okay. If you don’t know how to do something as long as you try to seek solutions As long as you try to figure it out and make it work. And we did. I went to Mali. I helped build a school and I literally mean building a school We were shoveling making bricks digging the latrine so that kids in this village in Mali could get an education. The heart of the programme though was about teaching high school students that we can have an impact in the world. Even if you have a disability, you still can have an impact in the world. When I came back home, my parents were more convinced But only slightly Even now, even after graduating from law school, they’re still nervous and still protective And That probably will never end as long as they’re your parents. Haben, I wanted to also bring in our community here We got a tweet. So many people follow your work online and love what you stand for and love what you advocate for. This is Ibrahim Who’s one of them. Ibrahim on Twitter says I watched your TEDx talk and I must say you are super intelligent. We both know no to disabilities are the same. We all have our uniqueness But how did you cope with ableism growing up as a child in the states? Ableism is a problem all over the world in the United States, in Eritrea and Ethiopia Ableism is the belief that people with disabilities are inferior to the non-disabled So employers thinking don’t hire someone with a disability. They won’t do the job or teachers thinking We’re not letting kids with disabilities in our class because they can’t learn. Those are harmful assumptions and we need to get rid of them When I was a kid, I didn’t know how to advocate I missed out on so many things my high school graduation There were so many speeches that I missed. I had no idea what they were saying Because I didn’t know how to advocate Slowly growing up I started to advocate then I started to have more access and not only me Every time I advocated I removed a barrier and it helped the students who came after me That’s really what drove me to become a lawyer Realizing that when I create positive change it benefits our whole community Is a way that you write that takes us into your world we see inside the way that you are thinking We see through your eyes We see what you see and sometimes it’s not that much and we try and understand the world from your perspective So for instance in your living room, there’s a step and you’re not sure exactly where that step is. So you do a jump So you can pretty much guess where you think that step is and then you jump so you are Navigating the world and we are navigating the world as a reader in your memoir through you That way of describing things for people who do not have disabilities How have they reacted to? understanding more from your perspective So there’s so many ways to experience the world Seeing is one way if you don’t have access to visual information Maybe you can hear it if you don’t have access to sight or hearing Maybe you can feel it. So throughout the stories in my book. I describe Environments in multiple ways. I talk about the feelings tables the whether food tastes smells There’s so many ways to experience the world some people ask why would blind people travel if they can’t see the sights and As a blind person that sounds like a silly question to me. There’s so many experiences to have when you are out and about I went to Dubai several years ago and It was so interesting to feel the different changes in weather to meet people and learn about the different cultures the different foods smells so many experiences And so many of those experiences are detailed in your book, which is excellent. It’s a quick read and I’m not the only one who thinks so so there are some members of our community who are already in love with it One sent us a video comment. Her name is Monique Coleman She’s a teacher of visually be visually impaired and here’s what she wanted you to hear haben. I just finished reading your book and I found it thoroughly engaging from beginning to end your wit your tenacity your love of learning and And certainly your humor is shown through all of your experiences I’m a TDI and I highly recommend your book for my students there and their parents as well as for my family and friends who often ask me a lot of questions about the blindness community and I’d love to point them to your book as a resource for learning more And also just because it’s a beautiful memoir you touched a little bit and a very matter-of-fact kind of way on your multiple Identity lies identities at one point. You spoke about being a black deaf and blind woman at a Harvard Law School event And I’m wondering if you could touch a little bit more on that experience because it’s not often talked about in the blindness community and how that nuanced perspective Impacts the work you do today So her question is about your multiple identities being black being blind and deaf and a woman at Harvard Law School How did that inform your time there? So that comment first of all Thank You Mandy I’m so thrilled that you enjoyed my book in the story is That specific comment comes from a scene where I’m at Harvard Law School and there’s a networking reception for law students to meet with real live lawyers and at the networking reception I stood out as a woman who’s also black with a dog and a funny computer So I was ultra visible At the same time. I was also invisible because when people see me, they Think of all the assumptions all the images we have in society of blind people Become most common images of the blind beggar. And with that comes a low expectations and people assuming She’s probably boring not gonna talk to her or she probably can’t work in my law firm I’m not gonna go meet her all those negative assumptions Then throughout our history the words deaf and dumb have often gone together Which hurts the deaf community? So many of us are extremely intelligent But people assume we’re incompetent and they miss out on talent they miss out on opportunities So all of my identities intersect creating by society creating more barriers with society’s assumption and ableism and racism and sexism So when we address disability rights? We also need to advance opportunities for women and people of color No one advances if someone is still left behind There’s a story that comes from the book which is when you went to the White House, and it was a celebration of the American Disabilities Act you are the opening speaker for President Obama at the time and Vice President. Joe Biden I have a picture of you here with your brow machine But even behind this amazing celebration and people saying what a great speech the preparation was still a challenge So when you wanted to go up to the podium to check it out as every speaker loves to do there was a challenge Involved in that but you solve that problem Tell us how you solve that problem So the White House was celebrating The EDA the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act so this was a disability centered event all about inclusion and access and I still faced a barrier And my point with that story is even among family even Disability events. I still find myself Advocating partly because I have such a rare disability Deafblindness is rare. It’s hard to find spaces where I’m automatically included. Here’s what happened at the White House when I arrived I brought a Typist and communication facilitator named Cameron, who is highly Experienced and done all kinds of events with me and they told us she could not go on stage with me We asked why she’s really skilled and I want someone who’s experienced and they said sorry it’s protocol They wanted me to go with someone who had not had experience with deafblind individuals there was no time to to change the system So what I did really quickly is I trained that person and I taught him how to guide The best way to guide for me is to communicate environmental information that we Dancer communicates music so through your shoulder and arm so we practiced going on it off the stage and I taught him how to use the keyboard and Braille display Luckily it worked out well, but people should trust Organizations and institutions should trust people with disabilities when we request accommodations We are our experts we know what works for us, and we need society to listen if I’m a just a sneaky little story off the back of that I’m gonna show a picture of President Obama at the time and then you and he is typing to you. He decides he’s not gonna speak anymore He’s gonna type directly to you And then in the background we have the former Vice President Joe Biden and he wrote a little message to you as well Do you remember what he wrote to you? I want you to tell the world because he’s known for his empathy and rather warm approach to meeting people Warm approach indeed Tell the world so when I first met him the first thing he says Not hi Not nice to meet you. The first thing he says is I love you. I Didn’t know Mustard So I said thank you, but I was thinking did he just declare love? What does this mean? and sometimes people when they’re encountered was that when they encounter something new they Accidentally blurt out things that just touch on the edge of what they mean So I try to see the best in the situation and assume that people mean well and I took it as a compliment and in him trying to communicate respect and admiration So many of these instances and you detail a couple of them in the book Hinge on that on people meaning well, but not knowing what to say and it leads to sometimes some awkward circumstances So I wanted to share a couple of tweets from Anna M On Twitter who says the way to defuse those situations is humor She writes humor can relax everyone when you make a joke of your limits after which people can then listen better She goes on to say I have so many questions for haben blush Question 1 how do you find happiness in life? You always sound so happy so calm and composed So haben, I’m hoping you can answer both of those questions one. How do you find happiness? But also How do you then use humor to defuse potentially awkward situations? Humor is a way to happiness humor dispels any disability-related, awkwardness people and other oppressed groups also End up finding that humor is a great tool to break the ice and help people feel comfortable It shouldn’t be our job to meet non-disabled people feel comfortable but it’s a tool if you find yourself in that situation to help break the ice and Hopefully teach them inclusion teach them to be better advocates How do I find happiness? Happiness is a process be honest with yourself. What are your struggles what your challenges and Once you accept them and address them you can work towards solutions So happiness is a process of constantly having those conversations with yourself There’s a way that you approach your advocacy in the book, which is by storytelling You tell a story you use it as an illustration you give some stats and then you say do better This is how we can do better. I am sharing a picture with our audience of you in Juneau in Alaska at a Gracia and That was a time when you were hoping to get a summer job You were super qualified really smart student and you couldn’t get a job and you share the statistic of about 70% of blind people never work So this idea of being a person with disabilities and not being able to work. How are you working to change that? That’s a good question so when I was in college I Really wanted a summer job Just like lots of other college students and one of my friends told me I know a place where there are lots of summer jobs Alaska And he was right. There’s a large tourism industry in Juneau Alaska and lots of summer jobs because of the tourism industry Employers would see my resume and get excited and invite me to interviews I was valedictorian in high school really good grades in college lots of volunteer experiences and Still employers didn’t want to hire me ableism Assumptions that I was incompetent, I would not be able to do the job. I applied to all kinds of jobs dishwashing shelving gift shops Folding laundry in hotel. These are tactile activities They don’t require a sight but they still assumed I couldn’t do it and they wouldn’t hire me That taught me that introduced me to employment discrimination and it made me realized Working hard is not enough We also need employers to rid of ableism stop assuming that people with disabilities are incompetent Eventually that summer I found one employer who was inclusive She hired me to be a front desk clerk at a small gym in Juneau, Alaska So my responsibilities included managing the cash register the machines in the gym Cleaning the changing rooms She didn’t care whether I used site or non visual technique as long as I got the job done Lots of people with disabilities have alternative techniques and alternative techniques are equal and value to mean stream techniques employers need to know that One day a woman came to the front desk of the gym, and she said a treadmill isn’t working. I Followed her to the treadmills and I pressed the on button. Nothing happened. I tried the other buttons on the machine Nothing happened. So I felt the machine from top to bottom and on the bottom. I felt a switch I Flicked the switch and the machine were too light The lady sighs. Oh my goodness. I didn’t see that switch. I Told her I didn’t see it either Ha then sometimes that discrimination also extends to the digital space and so I want to share a comment from a disability rights lawyer in Berkeley in the Bay area of California where haben is also from have a listen? Digital accessibility is a human right of disabled people around the globe and here in the United States We have laws of protect that right People have been using those laws for more than 20 years to make sure the digital world is available to everyone recently Domino’s Pizza has asked the US Supreme Court to try to limit how Disabled people can use laws to protect their right to be part of the digital world We don’t know what’s gonna happen with that and we won’t know probably for another year But we do know that people with disabilities and their lawyers will continue to fight to make sure the digital world is inclusive I’d love to hear from haben about a lawsuit that she worked on that she talks about in her book That made a digital library with hundreds of thousands of books available to everyone So haben we have just about a minute left in the show, but can you talk about that lawsuit In my book I talk about a lawsuit where a library didn’t want to make their website accessible They said under the Americans with Disabilities Act digital places don’t have to be accessible and We took them to court and the court decided. Yes online places do fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act and after that the library script Settled and agreed to make their web serve to meet their digital library accessible to blind readers Business is the choose inclusion gain more customers. There are over a billion people with disabilities around the world It’s smart to choose inclusion haben Girma Thank you very much for being with us haben the Deafblind woman who conquered harvard law is the name of her memoir. I can’t think of a better way to end this show than here On my computer watch in harbin Celebrating the release of her book with a swing dance, of course, enjoy


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