June 01, 2016

Haben Girma meets with state leaders at St. Kate's

Haben Girma and Alicia Lane-Outlaw from the National Association of the Deaf Board of Directors at ASL & Interpreting's Advocacy, Access and Inclusion Luncheon. The two communicate via a wireless QWERTY keyboard, which transmits to a digital braille display. Photo by Ryan Johnson '19.

Minnesota has a long history of providing disability services. So when national educator and advocate Haben Girma met with state leaders from the Minnesota DeafBlind community at St. Catherine University last week, her challenge was clear: share your expertise.

“We’re all interdependent, so sharing information from Minnesota to the rest of the world benefits everyone,” says Girma.

Hosted by St. Kate’s ASL and Interpreting program, the community celebration and leadership luncheon brought together students, parents, advocates and leaders from numerous agencies — including the Minnesota DeafBlind Association, Minnesota Association of Deaf Citizens, National Association of the Deaf and the Minnesota Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf — for a conversation about advocacy, access and inclusion. The Commission of Deaf, DeafBlind and Hard of Hearing Minnesotans and the University of Minnesota–Interpreting and Captioning Unit underwrote the events.

Less than a week on the job, Governor Dayton’s new Chief Inclusion Officer James Burroughs was in attendance to meet other leaders and gain insight from Girma.

“It’s a priority for me to make sure people understand that inclusion is a lot more than one thing. It doesn’t mean just gender, it doesn’t mean just race, it doesn’t mean just disability — it’s all things — it’s intersectionality,” says Burroughs.

Girma is certainly the epitome of intersectionality. The daughter of refugees, a black woman, and deafblind, Girma said to St. Kate’s graduates just the day before that “our world sometimes tells me my life doesn’t matter.”

And yet — this woman has become a force for change on the national stage. Her message to state leaders, as well as to the graduates, was very much the same: every individual has the power to create change.

“Start with the belief that someone wants to do the right thing, but just doesn’t know what it is, or how it works. You can educate them in a friendly manner. Let them know captioning ensures access for deaf individuals, that transcripts are great for braille readers, that we need interpreters, that we need access for guide dogs,” Girma explains. "For institutions that refuse to provide access, even after being educated — that's where lawyers can be helpful."

The first deafblind graduate of Harvard Law School, Girma worked as an attorney for Disability Rights Advocates where she won a landmark case against Scribd, which required the company to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by making their technology accessible.

“The Americans with Disabilities Act requires — its promise of access depends on — people advocating for change,” she says.

While Girma has left litigation behind to become a national educator and inclusion advocate, she underscores the power of legal action when necessary to enforce policy — but it takes individuals to step forward.

“Lawyers can’t make change without plaintiffs. Change can’t occur unless people with disabilities ask for the change and are willing to advocate,” explains Girma.

Haben Girma and James Burroughs Haben Girma and Minnesota's Chief Inclusion Officer James Burroughs communicate one-on-one during the luncheon. Photo by Ryan Johnson '19

Creating inclusiveness

Many Internet tools that could provide education and employment access for people with disabilities have failed to incorporate accessibility principles, creating barriers, or what Girma calls an "information famine.”

“A lot of institutions, start-ups in Silicon Valley, are making apps and websites without consideration for accessibility. I need help reminding these companies to make sure their apps and websites are accessible,” she says. “Whenever you have the opportunity, remind those around you to design with accessibility in mind.”

What available technology does Girma like best? Apple, which offers a range of accessible apps and devices.

Burroughs was struck by the discussion on technology, and wants to better dialogue on the state level about disability access.

“All these apps, these computer solutions that aren’t accessible for the deaf or blind, are resulting in a whole segment of our population being excluded,” he says. “We need to do a better job of educating our folks who don’t have a disability about what that means, and how to have more inclusive strategies.”

State leaders in attendance hailed from the Blind and Deaf Communities, as well as from deafblind organizations. During a Q & A, Alicia Lane-Outlaw from the National Association of the Deaf Board of Directors asked Girma for suggestions on better collaboration between the groups.

“I think the Deaf Community has more expertise in terms of communication access, and the Blind Community has a longer history of legislation and legal advocacy. So having the communities work together would be beneficial for the DeafBlind Community,” Girma says.

Darlene Zangara, executive director of the Olmstead Implementation Office was among the many state leaders and community members who left the event energized and optimistic.

“Haben’s a great role model for others to see what it takes to succeed, when given the appropriate support and resources,” says Zangara, who was also encouraged by Girma’s remarks about Minnesota.

“We were at one time a national leader in disability services — a model for other states to follow — but we kind of went to sleep there for awhile. So we’re trying to get that back again, that status as leader.”

Haben Girma challenges grads to pursue truth and social justice (Commencement address)

Captioned video of Girma's Commencement Address (YouTube)

By Sharon Rolenc