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    Categories: TechCareer AdviceNow + BeyondInterviews

Meet force of nature Haben Girma, Harvard Law School’s first deafblind graduate and fearless accessibility advocate

The Obama White House / Pete Souza

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Recently, The Tempest had the opportunity to interview Haben Girma – an accessibility advocate, Obama’s Champion of Change, and Harvard Law School’s first deafblind graduate. As co-founder and CTO, I was able to snag the interview – and it was an incredible conversation.

Haben will also be speaking at Naseba Global WIL Economic Forum this October in Dubai. WIL is a true catalyst for change and because they connected us I was able to have a fascinating conversation with Haben that ultimately led to our pivot and commitment to accessibility. Before the actual call, we’d gone back and forth with a few emails- she sent me two links, which I think all journalists should read: a guide to producing positive disability stories and FAQs about her around accessibility, and general writing advice for journalists writing about people with disabilities.

Here’s how the call went: Haben’s friend would type what I was saying, and her keyboard was connected to a machine translator that would convert the text to Braille. She’d then respond with her voice.

I looked forward to the call because I’m also passionate about accessibility, although my previous work has been in Deaf-accessibility initiatives. I wanted to know more about Haben’s work, although just one article alone won’t do justice to her list of accolades. She’s worked as a lawyer in the DRA (Disability Rights Advocates), has given an Apple keynote on accessibility to developers, and even fought a case against Scribd, to make their content accessible.

“There are 1.3 billion people with disabilities in the world,” she told me.

“That’s a huge population, like almost the size of China, and a lot of companies completely ignore this population. But, it’s in our interest to think about this population and to think about what products we can build, or rather than having separate products, making our mainstream products accessible to everyone. There are guidelines online that teach people how to make websites accessible to blind readers, so blind people can access websites. Or, how to make videos accessible to Deaf people, like captioning on videos.”

I can tell when something comes from pity versus the desire to understand. Click To Tweet

I asked her how audio can be made accessible since the boom in podcasts has made them an indispensable part of current culture. She said, “What’s helpful is an audio transcript. Deaf individuals who want to hear the podcast will need to read a transcript. If I’m going to access a podcast, I need a transcript. Another thing to keep in mind is it helps your readership. When there’s more text associated with the content, it allows for more keyword searches. So people who are searching for that topic are more likely to find your podcast if there’s also a transcript with all the associated keywords. So it helps everyone, not just the deaf community.

So, how could we then tackle stigmas that people have – questions that they’re afraid to ask people with disabilities?

Fear causes people to lose so much. Lose potential knowledge, lose potential friends. I wish people would stop living in fear and start asking questions so that they can learn. I really appreciate when people ask questions out of a place of empathy a desire to understand,” and she can differentiate when people are trying to understand vs. when they’re asking a question and communicating pity by saying statements like: “Poor thing I would never survive if I was in your position.” or “Ungrateful, I don’t have your condition.

I can tell when something comes from pity versus the desire to understand. I’m always happy to answer questions and to teach people- that’s why I’m in this space of being a public speaker, a teacher, a lawyer. I’ve decided to choose this. Some people with disabilities don’t want to have to deal with educating the public, and it’s everyone’s own choice, not everyone should be an ambassador, it’s their personal choice whether to teach the community or not.”

Fear causes people to lose so much. Lose potential knowledge, lose potential friends. Click To Tweet

I asked her about the changes she’s seen in terms of accessibility, and what corporations are doing. She said she’s definitely noticed a change and while she’s also doing a lot of work, she also tells me about other organizations who have been advocating for access for years, and how many changes have happened because of them.  She mentioned Amazon’s Kindle books and how they weren’t originally accessible to the blind.

The NFB (National Federation of the Blind) advocated for Kindle books to become accessible. And eventually, Amazon changed its products to make them more accessible. “So now if I want to read a Kindle book, I can get any book on their store. It can be converted from speech to Braille.

There’s more to advocacy than just lawsuits - that was when I decided to make a switch. Click To Tweet

I asked her about her time at DRA – Girma worked for the DRA after school and she tells me was able to focus on things that interested her, like access to digital, and she elaborates on a case against Scribd, where DRA was representing the NFB, “Scribd insisted that they didn’t have to make their online services and digital library accessible. The judge ruled in our favor because the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to online businesses like Scribd. That was a huge victory, it was thrilling to be able to reach a landmark decision, to impact history and make a difference in our cultural history.”

This was also when Girma realized, “There’s more to advocacy than just lawsuits and I decided to make a switch and focus more on teaching. I wanted to help people do the right thing, so they don’t get sued.”

She continues, telling me something I didn’t know: “Apple is the most popular choice for people with disabilities…and they are doing more than any other company to make their products as accessible as possible.

The iPhone is the most popular smartphone amongst blind individuals- there’s a screen reader called VoiceOver on the iPhone, and it reads everything out loud on the screen from digital to braille.”

She continues, telling me about Tim Cook’s official statement about how accessibility is a priority at Apple: “It means so much to have the leadership of a company acknowledging and telling all employees that accessibility is a priority and a human right. I wish that more leaders of companies would come out and say to us that we’re going to prioritize this.”

This was the point in the conversation when I truly felt that as a co-founder I had the power to make this change happen at The Tempest. Learning from Haben and leaders in the disability/accessibility community like her is critically important for understanding the kind of revolutionary changes that we are aiming to make at The Tempest.

Accessibility isn’t a buzzword: something you can add on to your site or product and hope for the best. It’s a challenge, an ongoing mission that requires creativity, empathy, and commitment to building a world that works for everyone in it.

After all, inclusivity is the foundation on which The Tempest was built.

The Tempest is proud to be media partners with Naseba Global WIL Economic Forum. The WIL Forum is a catalyst for change by focusing on diversity and inclusion and leading efforts such as an inclusive internship project for this edition. This interview was edited for length and clarity.