‘My disability was never my barrier’

This feature is part of the ADA 30th Anniversary series, which marks the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, civil rights legislation which prohibits discrimination based on disability, provides accommodations for employees with disabilities, and requires public spaces to be accessible.

Haben Girma is an author, lawyer, speaker and disability rights advocate who’s been honored by world leaders including Justin Trudeau, Angela Merkel and former President Barack Obama, the latter of whom named her a White House Champion of Change in 2013. The 31-year-old also holds the distinction of being the first deaf-blind graduate of Harvard Law School. But with all of her accomplishments, Girma wants to make one thing crystal-clear: Her success hasn’t come in spite of her disability; it’s come in spite of ableism, or the discrimination and reinforcement of stereotypes against people with disabilities.

“My disability was never my barrier,” the San Francisco native tells Yahoo Life. “It was ableism that kept getting in my way.

“People often ask, ‘Is disability a barrier? How has deaf-blindness been a barrier?’ And then I ask people, ‘Why are you assuming that a disability would be a barrier?’ That’s an ableist assumption. We need to move away from thinking ‘is disability a barrier’ and instead move toward thinking, ‘how do we make our services accessible, how do we make our schools accessible?’

“Stop framing disability as a barrier,” she adds. “Disabled people are successful because communities choose to remove the barriers. I was the first deaf-blind student to graduate from Harvard Law School, not because I overcame disability. I’m still disabled and still deaf-blind. It was Harvard that overcame some of their ableism.”

Speaking to Yahoo Life over video — and communicating via a Braille device — Girma explains that she and Harvard “engaged in an interactive process to find solutions and make it work” during her time there, including making course materials available and accessible to her as a deaf-blind student. Fittingly, it was Girma’s passion for making books and technology more inclusive of the disabled community — for instance, by including image descriptions and transcripts — that first drove her to study law.

“When I was in college, I heard about so many new tech services coming out that would make life easier,” recounts Girma, who studied at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., as an undergrad. “Like e-readers, electronic books. I wanted to gain more access to reading and books and online services. And a lot of those tech companies were ignoring disabled people. They weren’t designing their services to be accessible. So I decided to become a lawyer and help advocate for greater access online.”

Now Girma is herself an author, having published a memoir, Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law, last summer. In it, she speaks on her push for disability innovation — a way of using technology and other accommodations to bridge the accessibility gap and improve “social, physical and digital accessibility.”

Haben Girma's book, <em>Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law,</em> was released last year. (Photo: Via Amazon)
Haben Girma’s book, Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law, was released last year. (Photo: Via Amazon)

“I want to see tech companies prioritizing accessibility,” she tells Yahoo Life. “Accessibility guidelines already exist. The resources are out there. There are many disability advocates and experts who can help design accessible services. Make tech accessible. It benefits all of us.

“I want a future where disabled people have equal opportunities to services, health, education — everything should be fully accessible.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), signed into law on July 26, 1990, has “helped,” she adds — but “30 years later, there’s still many things that are not accessible.”

Says Girma, “Ableism is so widespread that it’s taking more than 30 years to reach our full equality.” She adds that “disabled people themselves are the ones doing a lot of this work … we need non-disabled people to start doing the work.”

In the meantime, Girma will continue to push against ableism and belittling stereotypes. A keen dancer and outdoor enthusiast who enjoys paddle boarding and surfing, she’s quick to rebuff the notion that her physical pursuits as a deaf-blind woman are “daring.”

“It’s more daring to share your vulnerabilities, such as writing a book and saying how you feel about all the challenges,” she notes. “It’s really, really hard to share vulnerable emotions. Standing up on a surfboard, that’s much easier.”

She also resists labeling disabled people as “inspirational.”

“Many disabled people don’t like being called inspiring,” she says. “‘Inspiration’ — that word is often used as a disguise for pity. People use it as a mask, when in actuality, they’re thinking, ‘I’m grateful my life is not as bad as yours.’ Let’s move away from that and instead move toward the original meaning of the word ‘inspiration.’ It’s to feel moved, to do something. If you feel inspired, tap into that emotion and pick one thing you’re inspired to do. Make a commitment today to do one thing, to make your community more accessible.”

Video produced by Stacy Jackman.

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