Haben Girma, a disability advocate and the first deafblind graduate of Harvard Law School, spoke with us via iMessage from her Berkeley, CA, office to discuss her work to change the accessibility culture of Silicon Valley, her meeting with President Obama during the 25th anniversary commemoration of the Americans with Disabilities Act and society’s evolving attitude toward people with disabilities.
NOTE: This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
What are you working on these days?
I work towards ending the information famine. Investigating online services that have access barriers and teaching members of the tech community to design with universal access in mind.
That’s pretty intense. When most people think of accessibility in the context of disability it deals with the analog, the physical world. But the digital world is so important now.
You’re right, access to the digital world is so important now with all the services and programs that require us to go online. When government websites, job applications, and even learning tools are inaccessible people with disabilities are placed at a disadvantage. Institutions are continually developing websites and apps with access barriers. Computer science programs are not teaching their students to design with access in mind. Many startups assume the access requirements do not apply to them.
What have you learned about the challenges of advocacy work over the years?
Change takes time. I wish changes would occur overnight, but they take time. Cultural changes occur slowly and require multiple forms of advocacy through law, through schools, through training, and especially through media.
What do you when you’re not being a leading advocate for disability rights?
Salsa dancing, spending time with friends, hiking, playing with my Seeing Eye dog, and sometimes surfing. Salsa and other partner dances are a beautiful way for people to connect across languages. At its heart, salsa is a form of communication, an expression of joy through movement and music.
You recently went to the White House. How was it getting to meet the President?
President Obama took the time to listen to the message I shared on the important role technology plays in creating and dismantling barriers. I felt very honored to meet him. By making time to spotlight accessible technology, he helped increase awareness.
What cultural changes- if any- would you like to see in peoples’ attitudes toward deafblind people?
Why just DB [deafblind] people?
Attitudes toward each disability is unique. Some have made more societal progress than others.
Hmm… my focus has been broader so I haven’t really made comparisons.
Fair enough. Then how would you like to see societal attitudes change toward all people with a disability?
All forms of oppression are connected. Whether it’s based on religion, race, class, age, gender, sexuality, nationality, or disability, it’s all from the same source. How do we change our culture to one that values all lives?
As you define this as a form of oppression, what can we do to work toward liberation?
A shift in our culture to one that values diversity will occur through legal advocacy, training students, training leaders, strong stories in the media, and other forms of social justice advocacy. In a more inclusive society we would not fear those who are different.
What experience in your life convinced you most strongly of this?
At school I studied cultural anthropology, feminist theory, racial justice, immigrant rights, religious discrimination around the world, etc. While studying all those different forms of oppression I realized they all come from the same source: a dominant group’s fear of those who are different.
You said at one point you didn’t like people comparing you to Helen Keller. How do you feel about the very plausible notion you are now that basis of comparison today?
The danger of a single disability story is that the public expects people to conform to that story. My story is one more story from which the public can learn, and I hope having more disability stories will get people to stop saying, “You should be just like ‘X.’” We all deserve the opportunity to develop our own unique talents and interests. It’s not fair to tell someone, “You should learn to surf because Haben surfs.” Such statements pressure people to conform to a single story, a single set of expectations. That’s incredibly limiting.
Do you think we’ve been making progress toward being more interested in what people want to be versus what we think they should be?
Some, though not nearly enough. If we listened to all the kids who say they want to go into acting we wouldn’t have the current Oscars diversity problem.
Learn more about Haben here.