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Disability rights lawyer redefines barriers, examines communication methods

  • obama-haben-posing-photoset.jpg
     Haben Girma with President Barack Obama prior to her remarks at the White House event for the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 2015.  Photo by Pete Souza.
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The annual McSwain-Walker lecture brings renowned scholars, artists, analysts and other notable public figures to William & Mary to speak on topics related to how other countries and cultures interact with the United States, and how the United States interacts with them. In recognition that this is the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the William & Mary Law School Center for Comparative Legal Studies and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding and William & Mary’s Office of Compliance & Equity joined the Reves Center in presenting Ms. Girma’s lecture.

By Georgia Thoms ’23

In the Sept. 21 McSwain-Walker lecture, “How Disability Drives Innovation: An Intersectional and Global Perspective,” disability rights lawyer Haben Girma talked about redefining barriers and using disability to spearhead innovation.

In the lecture Girma stressed the importance of understanding the differences in how people access information and communicate as well as the importance of creating individual narratives. She talked about her own complex identities and the unique perspective her life gave her in carving her story.

“As the daughter of refugees, a Black woman, disabled, lots of stories say my life doesn’t matter,” Girma said. “I choose to resist those stories. I choose to define disability as an opportunity for innovation. If you can’t do something one way, it is an opportunity to come up with a new alternative way to do it. Alternative ways of accessing things are equal to mainstream ways of doing things.”

Throughout her career, Girma received distinguished honors like the White House Champion of Change award from President Barack Obama, the Helen Keller Achievement award and a spot on the Forbes “30 Under 30” list. Also, Girma has authored her own book, The Deafblind Woman who Conquered Harvard Law and was Harvard Law’s first Deafblind student.

Girma recollected the many instances in her life where she received help removing and overcoming barriers. Whether it was salsa dancing with partners, surfing on her own or creating a braille menu at Harvard Law, Girma continues to spend her lifetime defying the boundaries of ableism.

“So many people associate disability with barriers,” Girma said. “It’s really an opportunity to come up with new ways of doing things. The instructors I worked with had to take the time to think about how to teach through tactile communication. It is really about taking the time to be thoughtful and creative and come up with solutions.”

Girma emphasized the need for new developments in technology and haptics, as well as the increase in the diversity of schools and workplaces. She believes that the technology is out there to innovate with touch-based communication tools.

“So rather than saying, ‘it is impossible, we can’t do this,’ and allowing stigmas to grow, pause and think about what are the things you actually can do,” Girma said. “And come up with safe solutions for making sure people have access, including people who need touch-based access.”

Girma explained how there exists the assumption that there are two kinds of people: disabled and non-disabled. This assumption is then associated with being dependent and independent. However, Girma felt this narrative undermined the level of interdependency needed by people.

“Everyone has situational times when they depend on other people,” Girma said. “And that is okay. As long as we are honest about the fact that we are all interdependent.”

Girma described further how in the world, disabilities are unrightfully viewed as a hindrance. Despite this, this is a time where technology allows for more information to be incorporated into disability advocacy.

“Schools are fantastic places for students and professors to come up with new ideas to share information,” Girma said. “As you develop new things, don’t make assumptions about what disabled people can and cannot do. Design for everything to be inclusive. Discrimination against disabled people is widespread and hidden. We need to help people identify it and do the work of removing it.”

President of Best Buddies on campus Ella Schotz ’23 found the event incredibly eye-opening.

“I am always interested in learning more about the community and different barriers, as well as ways to overcome them,” Schotz said. “A line that really stuck out to me tonigt was when she said she didn’t overcome her disability, Harvard overcame some of their ableism. I really felt like this captured the way to be an ally and advocate for disabled people—instead of treating it as something that poses a problem or something that holds a person back, we should use disability to drive improvement and inclusion in our communities.”

Schotz continued that she enjoyed how Girma noted that inclusion helps everyone and with increased accessibility, the features will be beneficial for more involved than just those who originally requested it.

Another attendee, a local retired English teacher in Williamsburg, Patricia Vaticano, also found the
lecture enlightening.

“This was a spectacularly informative and endearing lecture,” Vaticano said. “Haben is an inspiration to disabled and abled people alike, and I am so very grateful to the Reves Center for partnering with the William & Mary Law School to make Haben’s challenges and successes accessible to us all, in this way. The person or persons who engaged Haben for this webinar and pulled everything together for us should be highly commended.”

Girma concluded her discussion by reminding attendees that inclusion is something they can seek to do in their day to day life and can promote removing barriers.

“Inclusion is a choice,” Girma said. “When you choose inclusion, you role model it for everyone around you. Our bodies are always changing, you deserve dignity and access at every stage in our lives. I hope more people learn this word ableism, and can join me in the movement by removing barriers and making our communities more inclusive around the world.”

This article originally appeared in The Flat Hat