TEDx Talk: Why I work to remove access barriers for students with disabilities

Why I work to remove access barriers for students with disabilities | Haben Girma | TEDxBaltimore

Haben speaks at TEDx Baltimore 2014 on her education and experiences with a nonprofit where she used to work.


My name is Haben Girma. I work as a Skadden Fellow at Disability Rights Advocates. In other words, I’m a lawyer. What’s a lawyer? Well, there are many stereotypes, negative stereotypes of lawyers: People who never give you a straight answer; people who just want your money; people who aren’t even people, they’re sharks. These images are so strongly imbedded in our culture that people tell me, half-joking, “I don’t like lawyers.” When people think of lawyers, they really think of just one type of lawyer. Think about it, imagine, when you envision a lawyer, what do you see? Do you see a woman? Is that the first thing that comes to mind? How about someone using a wheelchair? Do you see someone who is deaf and signing? Or even, do you see someone who’s nice? There are many types of lawyers, and public service lawyers are changing what it means to be a lawyer. These are people who work and advocate for communities they love. For some of these lawyers, personal experiences fuel the desire to put an end to widespread injustice. People who experience challenges sometimes develop strengths that make them great advocates. Lawyers take experiences of poverty, race, gender, disability, or other forms of discrimination, and use that knowledge as a ladder for legal advocacy. For me, a lifetime of needing to advocate for myself – prepared me for the field of law. My disability is deafblindness. Helen Keller paved a path of possibilities for deaf-blind children and adults who came after her. These individuals need to move forward as pioneers, in a world designed for people who can see and hear. Many members of minority groups move forward as pioneers.

The process of pioneering one’s way through obstacles builds strong self-advocacy skills that can be used in the field of law or other forms of advocacy. As a pioneer, I went to the perfect college: Lewis & Clark. They call their football team the Pioneers. Their favorite place to hang out in downtown Portland? Pioneer Square. What else? Oh, and they call their school bus the Pioneer Express. As a pioneer, I lived for two years in the dorms at Lewis & Clark, and I ate at the cafeteria. The cafeteria had about 5 different food stations, and there was a menu at the door, and people would read the menu and choose what they wanted to eat. Blind students like myself couldn’t read the menu. The staff at the cafeteria offered to read me the menu, but I couldn’t hear it. As a blind student, my first choice would be to read the menu in braille. Braille takes time to produce, so we compromised. The staff agreed to email me the menu at the start of each meal, and I would be able to read it on my computer using a screenreader. It was a great idea, but the cafeteria constantly forgot to email the menus. Since I couldn’t read the menu, and I couldn’t hear the staff in the cafeteria, I couldn’t choose what I was going to eat. So after classes, I would pick a station at random, I would go up and take whatever was served by the staff behind the counter, I would take it to the table, and only then would I realize what I was going to eat. There were some unhappy surprises.

(Laughter) As a busy student with classes and preparing for exams and writing papers, the last thing I needed was this added frustration. But sometimes they did remember to send the menus, and when they did, I was thrilled to have choices. For example, if the menu said, “Station 3, tortellini with smoked gouda cheese,” I would know to skip stations 1 and 2 and go straight to station 3. When they remembered to send the menus, life was delicious. But they regularly forgot to send the menus. For the first few months, I didn’t do anything about it. I live and operate in a world that’s designed for people who can see and hear, and I figured this would just be another thing I would have to deal with, like not being able to drive, or not being able to watch the latest Grammies, or people not knowing how to communicate with someone who is deaf-blind. One of my best friends, when she first met me, didn’t know how to talk to someone who’s deaf-blind. In our international law class at Harvard, she was assigned to sit next to me, and we all had assigned seating. And, she thought she could wave, but what if I didn’t see it, and if she speaks, would I be able to hear it? So, she did the most logical thing for a student to do, she went onto Facebook, and sent me a message saying, “Hi, Haben, I’m sitting right next to you!” (Laughter) I’m happy to teach people how to communicate. I love those who embrace diversity. There’s all kinds of diversity.

Occasionally, there are individuals or organizations who are not willing to make accommodations for people with disabilities. And there’s that decision, do you just deal and let it go, or do you do something about it? And those menus, at that cafeteria, was a pivotal moment for me when I decided I should do something, for myself, and for future blind students who came to that college, Or anyone else who needed menus in alternative formats. So I explained to the manager at the cafeteria that I paid to eat at the cafeteria and like all the other students, I deserved access to the menus so I could take advantage of these services. The manager told me, they’re very busy, he’s doing me a big favor, and I needed to stop complaining and be more appreciative. I don’t know about you, but if there’s chocolate cake at station 4 and no one tells me, I’m not feeling appreciative. (Laughter) So, after several incidences of missed chocolate cake, I had enough, I tried something new. The Americans with Disabilities Act, ADA, was passed in 1990. Congress passed this law to protect the rights of people with disabilities. The law symbolizes a change from treating people as second class citizens. The ADA states that businesses like the cafeteria are required to make reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities. Emailing a menu is a reasonable accommodation.

I told the manager that if he would not send emails consistently, I would sue. To tell you the truth, I had no idea how I would do that. (Laughter) I was 19, how would I afford a lawyer? I was nervous that lawyers and judges wouldn’t understand. Besides, it’s just a menu, right? Lewis & Clark did an excellent job of giving me my course materials, my textbooks, my exams in braille. Students all across the country – blind students in other colleges, struggle to get basic access to books, even today. So who was I to complain? My mother grew up in Eritrea, amidst a 30-year war with Ethiopia. When she was 18, she trekked for two weeks from Eritrea to Sudan, then from Sudan, through a refugee organization, made it to America for a better life. So who was I to complain? I was worried that someone would think that access to a menu was too trivial, that it was a privilege, and not a right. But at the same time, I was also excited about the possibility of making the college a better place, even if it was just one other blind student that came after me. I had a vision, of helping other people, I had a vision, of joining the civil rights movement, maybe even becoming a lawyer. I had a vision, of eating that chocolate cake. (Laughter)

After teaching the cafeteria staff about the ADA, everything changed. They agreed to provide menus consistently, and they did. Learning about the ADA changed their attitude. They originally thought that providing access for students with disabilities was a favor, something they could do in their free time, when they were in the right mood. Learning about the ADA changed the culture in the cafeteria. The ADA creates legal obligations to treat people as equals. Schools nowadays admit students with disabilities, and that’s great. Access goes beyond the schoolhouse gate. We need access to online learning tools, to math and science courses, to study-abroad programs, and yes, even dessert menus. My experiences as a pioneer inspired me to become a lawyer. I now work in Berkeley, at Disability Rights Advocates, a national nonprofit organization. One stereotype of lawyer is that they’re just after your money. DRA does not charge clients. Civil rights need to be accessible. One tool used by lawyers, including at DRA, is the class action litigation. Class actions are when a group of people come together to sue someone who’s doing something wrong. It’s a way to help improve access to important things like education, or employment, and healthcare, at a national level.

A few years ago, several students at UC Berkeley came to DRA with concerns. Students with print reading disabilities need access to course materials in alternative formats. Like braille, large print, audio, digital. The university was taking so long to provide these materials, that students were at risk of failing their courses. Through the help of lawyers at DRA, students were able to reach an agreement with the university. The university now has new policies that are turning Berkeley into a model for other schools. Lawyers first and foremost educate their communities. I know that if people learn how to help, they will. So if you’re a programmer, a web engineer, learn about the web accessibility guidelines. If you’re an architect, learn about the ADA guidelines for new constructions. We can choose to make our communities accessible. It’s in our power to provide access for everyone. Those individuals who’ve had to move forward as pioneers are particularly well-positioned to help their communities, whether as lawyers, or as other advocates. My name is Haben Girma, and I hope I’ve given you a new vision of lawyers. Thank you. (Applause)

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