MLK Day Speech at the Perkins School for the Blind

Haben Girma's MLK Day Speech at the Perkins School for the Blind

Thank you for having me here today. Some of the most well-known disability rights advocates have passed through the Perkins School for the Blind, most famous, of course, were Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan. They left Perkins intent on making the world a better place. Since that time, laws have been created to ensure that people with disabilities have full and equal access to services and opportunities. Unfortunately, many businesses, schools, and other institutions remain unaware of our civil rights. We still need Helen Kellers, we still need disability rights advocates. And what better place to find them than right here at Perkins?

Being a disability rights advocate starts with self-advocacy. There are two very important components to self-advocacy: the first is being able to educate people about your legal rights; the second requires creative problem-solving skills to find alternative techniques for accomplishing tasks. I’ll use stories from my own life to illustrate each point.

After graduating from high school in Oakland, California I attended Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. My college experience was good overall, except for some initial challenges with the cafeteria. The college cafeteria had several food stations that served different items each day, and the printed menu hung on the wall by the entrance. At first I asked people to read the menu to me. With the noise level in the cafeteria, hearing people read the menu proved near impossible. I then asked the cafeteria’s manager to email me a copy of the menu before each meal. Since the cafeteria always had their menus in electronic format, emailing the menus to me would only involve copying and pasting. The manager agreed to email me the menu since it seemed simple enough. I still remember the excitement of getting those first few emails. Instead of picking a station at random and taking whatever the staff behind the counter put on my plate, I could finally actually choose what I wanted to eat. If the menu said station three was serving fried rice and eggrolls, I could skip stations one and two and go straight to station three. And of course I was thrilled to have choices about dessert! Whenever the cafeteria emailed me the menu, life was delicious. But every other day they would forget. I stopped in their office one day to politely remind them that I needed those emails. They said they were very busy but would try to send the emails consistently. Unfortunately, they continued to forget to send the menu nearly every other day. As a busy student with a full load of classes, eating well was very important to me. I explained the situation to the heads of the Student Life Department and Student Support Services. They told me the cafeteria was operated by an outside company and was out of their control. So I wrote an email to the manager of the cafeteria explaining that since I paid to eat at the cafeteria like all the other students, I needed access to the menu so I could fully use the services I was paying for. The manager responded saying that the cafeteria was very busy, that they were doing me a big favor and that I should stop complaining and be more appreciative. I don’t know about you, but if there’s chocolate cake at station four and no one tells me, I’m definitely not feeling appreciative. Remembering a disability rights workshop I attended back in high school, I decided to invoke the power of the ADA. In my email response to the manager of the cafeteria, I cc’d several others in the management team to make sure they learned about the ADA. I explained that Title III of the ADA requires businesses to make reasonable accommodations for persons with disabilities; if the cafeteria refused to do this, I would sue.

To tell you the truth, I had no idea what I was saying. How exactly was I going to sue anyone? I couldn’t afford a lawyer. I could file a complaint with the Department of Justice, but what if they thought my issue was trivial? What if a judge decided that emailing me a menu before each meal was not a reasonable accommodation? Part of me was nervous and worried, but another part of me was excited. I had a dream of joining the civil rights movement, a dream of pushing aside more barriers for all students with disabilities.

While I was eating dinner the next day, the cafeteria manager came over to apologize and promise that I would receive menus for each meal in a timely manner. And you know what? He actually kept his promise! I couldn’t believe how much he’d changed, how much my life had changed, all because of the phrase, “I’m goanna sue.” The threat of a lawsuit seemed as powerful as actually filing a lawsuit. By invoking the ADA, I forced him to temporarily set aside his attitude toward blindness and instead consider whether my request was reasonable. He originally thought providing access for blind students was an act of charity, a favor he could do when he had some spare time. Slowly, the ADA is teaching people to change their attitude so that granting equal access to people with disabilities becomes the normative attitude.

Threatening to sue is a very effective strategy for combatting discrimination, but it is really only a last resort. Lawsuits are complicated, long, and expensive. Countless times I have requested and received accommodations through friendly discussions. The college I attended provided nearly every accommodation I needed and most of the staff was very welcoming.

The second component to self-advocacy is creative problem solving skills. Once you overcome discrimination, once someone has changed their attitude, you will need a technique for getting the job done. Technology is constantly providing new tools with which blind people can accomplish tasks. While some accommodations will require the development of complex software, such as VoiceOver on the iPhone, other times the solution is simple, like using braille labels to distinguish between similarly sized bottles. Growing up I had many wonderful teachers who taught me many of my most valuable skills: braille, cane travel, and an attitude that creative thinking would overcome any obstacle.

Several years ago I was part of a rock-climbing club for blind students. By feeling for handholds and footholds we would pull ourselves up the rock wall. We all learned to climb and belay. The belayer is the person who holds the climber’s ropes. To my surprise, the instructor told me I could not belay since I would not hear a climber telling me to lower him from twenty, thirty, forty feet in the air. Although I understood his concern for safety, I felt frustrated that the other blind students were allowed to belay and I was not.

The instructor could not think of an alternative technique for deafblind belayers, and unfortunately, I couldn’t think of any either. However, just because he and I couldn’t figure it out, didn’t mean someone else couldn’t. As in many other areas of life, if you can’t solve a problem you look for an expert in the field. If your bike breaks, you take it to the bike shop. Since I was looking for a rock climbing technique that would allow a deafblind person to safely belay, I contacted a rock-climbing expert. The solution we came up with was brilliant: when a climber is ready to come down, he tugs on the rope several times to send a clear signal to the belayer. Because the belayer is holding the rope on the other end, the belayer would instantly feel the signal.

Finding creative solutions for people with disabilities can be challenging. It’s easy to dismiss something as impossible. Many of you live with sighted family members, sighted teachers, and sighted friends; for this reason you might feel pressure to act as an expert on blindness. I want to remind all of you that you don’t have to be an expert on blindness. When you run into an obstacle, contact an expert in a related field who can help develop creative solutions.

Once you’ve learned to advocate for yourself, the natural next step is advocating for others. My experiences advocating for disability rights in Washington, D.C. finalized my commitment to a civil rights career. Through the organization called DeafBlind Young Adults in Action, we strategized the arguments we would use to persuade Members of Congress to increase funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and to pass the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act—which successfully became law two months later. Winning the support of our nation’s lawmakers convinced me that I hold the potential to influence change at the national level. I remember sitting across from Senator Lisa Murkowski, explaining the dire fact that only 6% of deafblind children across the country have qualified special education teachers. As Senator Murkowski responded with attentive questions and supportive comments, I felt the future brighten for children with disabilities. The power of persons with disabilities to spearhead national change was further demonstrated when our group attended the Celebration of the 20th Anniversary of the ADA at the White House. Listening to President Obama argue that our nation cannot afford to lose the talents of persons with disabilities was incredibly inspiring. As I thanked President Obama for his speech, our hands met in a handshake that instilled me with the ethereal spirit of “Yes we can.”

We need more disability rights advocates, we need more Helen Kellers. When you leave Perkins and go on to get a job, go to college, or even to law school, remember that advocating for others starts with learning to advocate for yourself. When you assert your dreams, your needs, and your rights, opportunities will be limitless.