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Community Is the Key to Inclusion, Says Advocate for People with Disabilities

At the 2018 Fordham Distinguished Lecture on Disability, not only did audience members hear about inclusive technology—they got to see it in action.

This year’s speaker, Haben Girma, is a lawyer and an advocate for equal opportunities for people with disabilities. She is also the first deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School.

During her talk, titled “Disability & Innovation: The Universal Benefits of Inclusion,” Girma was able to gauge audience response with the help of interpreters in the audience who sent messages from wireless keyboards that output to a braille display on Girma’s keyboard, which she used throughout the evening.

In this way, Girma knew when the audience failed to respond to her opening greeting—which she joked about and then was able to register the ensuing laughter. Audience members were able to use the same system to ask her questions at the end of the lecture. Because Girma has some hearing in high frequencies, she is able to speak and pronounce clearly in a high range.

Throughout her talk, which took place on April 11 on the Rose Hill campus, Girma stressed the importance of using innovation to create unique solutions to eliminate barriers for people with disabilities.

“There are alternative ways of doing things, and alternative techniques are equal in value to mainstream techniques,” she said.

She noted that today there are many tools for making the world and its information more accessible, including screen readers for computer displays, captioning and transcripts for videos and podcasts, and text image descriptions for photos and other visual material.

But while technology is important for enabling inclusion, Girma added that it’s people who must initiate change.

“Access is all about communities, and communities choosing to be inclusive,” she said.

For Girma, whose father is from Ethiopia and whose mother fled from war in Eritrea, creating more positive stories around the concept of disability is key.

“As the daughter of refugees, a black woman, disabled—lots of stories say my life doesn’t matter. I choose to create my own stories. I choose to define what disability means,” she said.

“To me, disability is a powerful word. I associate it with civil rights, with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). I’m proud to be part of the community that advocated for and obtained a powerful civil rights law.”

Girma was spurred into advocacy as an undergraduate when the cafeteria at her small college in Portland, Oregon, refused her request to convert their printed menu into a version accessible to blind people.

After trying to tolerate the situation for several months—and facing several unwelcome surprises in food selections—she spoke to friends who reminded her she could choose to take action.

“It’s our choice to accept unfairness or advocate for justice,” she said.

She reapproached the cafeteria manager, framing her request as a civil rights issue, and citing that the ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities.

This time, the cafeteria agreed to make the change, and when a new blind student entered the school the following year, he didn’t have to fight for an accessible menu.

“That made me realize that when I advocate, it benefits our whole community, and I wanted to make that into a career,” Girma said.

Traveling the world as a consultant and public speaker, she now encourages others to look around their communities, identify barriers, and make a commitment to doing at least one thing to create more accessibility for people with disabilities.

To kick-start these efforts at Fordham, attendees were given small slips of paper and Girma asked everyone to write down one specific change needed on campus to foster more inclusion. The event organizers then collected their ideas.

“When you choose inclusion, you role model inclusion for people and encourage others to do the same,” she said.

Girma’s lecture was organized by the Faculty Working Group on Disability and co-sponsored by the Office of the Provost, the Office of the Chief Diversity Officer, the Global Healthcare Innovation Management Center, the Office of the Dean of the Law School, the English Department, and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

–Nina Heidig


A video of the lecture, with captioning available, is below.


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