Terrific TV host Tefera Gedamu invites Haben Girma to discuss her visit to Ethiopia on his popular show Meet EBC. Haben is an attorney with Disability Rights Advocates. In December 2014 she met with students and disability rights leaders in Ethiopia. This excerpt from her interview with Tefera begins with Tefera typing his questions to Haben while she reads them on her braille display and voices his questions out loud. To learn more about Haben and her work visit habengirma.com. The TV show was produced by ZANA Productions and the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation on January 9, 2015.
Haben: There is no going back. Absolutely true! It really changes your life to use technology and I am grateful to have this technology. The main reason I’m here in Addis is Because Aster Zaoude has set up a scholarship fund for blind students to Addis Ababa University. Tsehay Zewde memorial scholarship.
Tefera: In memory of – in memory of her sister who died in a plane crash years ago.
Haben: Yes, yes, exactly! and this scholarship has helped so many students. One of the ways it is helping students is to create more technology and to set up a technology center at Addis Ababa university.
Tefera: It is all about resources again.
Haben: Exactly! and this technology costs money. It is expensive, but it’s worth it. When you pay for this technology, in the long run, after a few years, that person with a disability is going to get a job. they’re gonna pay taxes, and those taxes. That income goes back to the community. It’s a worthwhile investment and it allows that person to be independent and share their talents. Would you rather have a person with a disability stay home and just hide? Or pay money for technology to have them doing work, being productive, contributing to society.
Tefera: Perceptions need to change.
Haben: Exactly! Perceptions needs to change. You’re a fantastic typer by the way (chuckling)
Tefera: Thank you.
Haben: You’re welcome.
Tefera: I am beginning to like this.
Haben: Would you like me to talk with an accent?
Tefera: Go ahead. (laughter)
Tefera: Addis Ababa University. You gave a lecture, talked women with disabilities, some of
them, most of them have of course benefited from the Tsehay Zewde scholarship that Aster and her sisters and brothers created for the benefit of our girls who Are at Addis Ababa university or higher institutions of learning. You’ve talked to them, you might not like this but you gave a lecture, right? Did you make a difference?
Haben: I believe I did make a difference, so it’s one thing to tell people you can do anything, it’s another thing to actually meet a person who went through college, who went through law school, and is now working and has a disability. So I know I’ve helped these girls by sharing my story with them and they’re gonna go and work and inspire other Ethiopians with disabilities, so I had mentors when I was growing up, and they now have mentors who can inspire them, and it meant a lot for me to meet these girls and share my story with them. I think the Tsehay Zewde memorial scholarship is gonna really change Addis Ababa university and make it even more inclusive, giving voices to women who often don’t have voices.
Tefera: You go about trying to change perceptions, influence policy in the United States because you’re very well active in some of the organizations that some of them you just mentioned you have the deafblind young adults in action you have the Disability Rights Advocates In Berkeley, California, and the national association of blind students and so on, You’ve been very very active in a number of Institutions that cater for people with disabilities. Broadly speaking what is the strategy that needs to be designed to be able to achieve either at a community level or family level, I don’t know how you create it.
Haben: There are many ways to change perceptions. There’s no one right way, many many different ways and I do it multiple ways. One way is to share my story. I have videos on my website that anyone can see all around the world, and I get messages from people who’ve watched that story, that video, and are inspired. I’ve heard from parents of children with disabilities, who say they’ve watched the video and realized that there child have many opportunities, and it gives them hope for their child that the world is still ahead of them, and they’ll just need to find tools to be able to do whatever it is that they wanna do, so sharing your story, uh, on the media, in writing, in spoken form, it’s really really powerful to share your story. So for example, this TV, you’re helping change attitudes in Addis and bring a more positive perception of disability by sharing this story with families in Addis. You’re doing an amazing job changing
Tefera: -Well thank you-
Haben: if more people do this, that would help a lot.
Tefera: When you talk to people in Addis Ababa now that you’re here you’ve been here what, two weeks already? When you talk to people are they fascinated, are they excited when they talk to you, because it’s quite rarely that people would run into people such as yourself who use technology, who acts a little bit differently, perhaps, and so on.
Haben: There are many different reactions, some people are scared, they stay away, they keep their distance, they watch and they stare but they don’t come up and ask questions, sometimes I offer them the keyboard, and they’re like “no, I don’t type” but I’m very interested in connecting with people, even if you’re a slow typist, I can still read slowly, I’ll still be able to get the information, so there’s a variety of reactions that other people have been very curious, and they want to try, even if they’re not a good typist, they want to try, and we all learn from something new and something different.
Tefera: You also went outside of Addis to several locations spread out in the country.
Haben: I feel hope partly because I’ve met a lot of amazing disability rights leaders here. So, I visited with many of the disability groups, and I’ve met a lot of great leaders, so there’s a lot of positive stuff already happening here now, and I see a lot of positive change going forward, AAU, Addis Ababa University, is soon gonna have a technology center for blind female students. That’s amazing, Tsehay Zewde memorial scholarship changing lives here. I went to Mekelle University last week and talked to the students there, and they are now also interested in having a technology center for students with disabilities. That’s a lot to witness in two weeks, and I’m really honored to have witnessed this and to see these changes, it’s absolutely amazing.
Tefera: Have you met deaf and blind persons here?
Haben: I have today, I went to the school for the deaf, and I met elementary school students who are deaf and they showed me “what’s your name?” and the signs are just like in American sign language. This is also “name” in Ethiopian sign language and American sign language. I knew that there was some similarities across sign languages, but I didn’t realize there were so many similarities between Ethiopian sign and American sign.
Tefera: Um, so as you go back home, I know you’re joining some institution, what is it called?
Haben: So I’m going to go to Disability Rights Advocates, which is the law firm that I work for, a nonprofit legal center that does disability rights work all across the United States. I will return to that, but I will keep in touch with the disability leaders I met here, and continue to share ideas, and help in any way I can. Haben, thank you very much, it was a pleasure having you on my show.
Haben: Thank you for having me here. You’re helping change attitudes by showing this story and getting it out to families in Ethiopia.