May 31, 2016

Haben Girma challenges grads to pursue truth and social justice

Haben Girma delivers her address at 2016 Spring Commencement. Photo by Rebecca Zenefski '10 / By Rebecca Studios

This year's Spring Commencement keynote speaker was Haben Girma, first deafblind graduate of Harvard Law School and outspoken advocate for disability rights, more inclusive communities and better education for deafblind people worldwide. Among her other distinctions, she is a White House Champion of Change, a Forbes 30 Under 30 leader and BBC Women of Africa Hero. Girma delivered a 2014 TedxTalk and introduced President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden at the White House Celebration of the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Formerly a staff attorney at Disability Rights Advocates in Berkeley, California, Girma is now a national educator and advocate.

During Commencement Girma was presented with the Alexandrine Medal by President Andrea Lee, IHM, who described her as a "woman of grace, strong conviction, and exceptional intelligence; a woman who leads and influences in the best St. Catherine tradition." The Alexandrine Medal, named for St. Catherine of Alexandria, is a distinction that recognizes outstanding service by a woman in her profession and a commitment to a life of truth and justice (previous recipients include Dorothy Day, Ann Bancroft and Maya Angelou). Below you can read Girma's commencement address in full.


Listen to Girma's address:


Good afternoon, everyone. It is such an honor to be here. Sister Andrea’s leadership has made so many opportunities possible, and I’m so grateful to know her. I also want to say thank you to the faculty and staff and trustees who have made your education possible, and the families and friends and communities that have supported you throughout these past four years. Let’s have a big cheer for class of 2016!

Thank you for having me here as your speaker. My name is Haben Girma. The name “Haben” comes from Eritrea, a small African country — Ethiopian borders to the south, and to the north, the Red Sea. My mother grew up during the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia, when Eritrea was struggling for independence. Because of the war, there was a lot of oppression. She didn’t have many opportunities that are available now. When she was in school, she and her classmates weren’t allowed to speak their language; only at home with her parents could she speak her language. She heard many, many stories about America, America as the land of opportunity, America as the land of freedom.

Stories are very powerful; stories influence the organizations we design, the products we build, and the futures we imagine for ourselves. Hearing these stories about America, my mom decided to make the dangerous journey, walking for two weeks from Eritrea to Sudan, and a Catholic refugee organization helped her come from Sudan to the United States. Several years later, older, wiser, my mother realized geography doesn’t create justice. It’s not the land that creates justice. People create justice. Communities create justice. All of us face the choice to accept oppression around us or advocate for justice, and those are some of the lessons and stories my mother shared with me. As the daughter of refugees, a black woman, disabled, our world sometimes tells me my life doesn’t matter.

My disability is deafblindness. Deafblindness encompasses a wide spectrum of vision and hearing loss. I have some vision and hearing. The world is designed for people who can see and hear, so I have had to come up with solutions and strategies to access information. I designed a system where I connect a QWERTY keyboard to a digital braille display, and hand the keyboard to people to be able to communicate.

One of my best friends, when she first met me, wasn’t sure how to say hi. She waved, and I couldn’t see it. She voiced, “Hi,” and I couldn’t hear it. It was our first day of international law class, and she wasn’t thinking about international law. She was thinking about how to get my attention. She was a student, so she did the most logical thing for a student. She went onto Facebook and sent me a message saying, “Hi Haben, I’m sitting right next to you!” I actually don’t check Facebook in class. But after class, I saw the message, and reached out to her and told her about the different communication methods I use. When people meet me, the first question is usually, “How do you communicate?” The second question is usually, “Have you heard of Helen Keller?”

Helen Keller is an amazing advocate. She lived from 1880 to 1968. She advocated for women’s rights, disability rights, workers’ rights, racial justice; she spent her whole life advocating for justice. Many stories about Helen, unfortunately, reduce her to one thing. She succeeded despite her disability. Disability never holds anyone back. All the barriers that exist are created by society, and it’s up to all of us to work together to dismantle those barriers. Like you, Helen went to a college for women, called Radcliffe College, and she was successful because her college chose to be inclusive. They ensured that she had braille materials, they ensured she had interpreters in her class. She succeeded in college because her college was inclusive.

Not all communities are inclusive — Harvard excluded Helen. Back then, Harvard was only for men. Helen’s disability didn’t hold her back, her gender didn’t hold her back — it was the community of Harvard that chose to exclude women. All barriers are created by people. As another example, Helen’s community would not allow her to experience marriage. Helen fell in love, secretly got engaged, but her family forcibly prevented her from marrying the person she loved. Helen’s disability didn’t stop her from feeling love; she wrote extensively about love. But her community, her family created insurmountable barriers. All the barriers that exist are created by communities, and it’s up to every single one of you to build a future free of barriers.

When I was in college, I struggled to figure out how I would do that, how I would work for a future free of barriers. I decided to start small, beginning first with my own community. I went to Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, a small liberal arts school. The college cafeteria served as a central place for students to relax and take a break between classes. When you entered the large building, along three of the walls were large windows showcasing Portland’s rain. On the fourth wall were various food stations. Sighted students would enter the building, browse a print menu, and then go to their station of choice. Blind students couldn’t read the menu.

I went to the cafeteria manager and explained that as a blind student, I can’t read the menu. Would they provide a menu in braille, or another accessible format: digital, email? And they told me they’re too busy. Back then, I was trying to eat vegetarian, which is hard when you don’t have food information. I would pick a station at random, sometimes wait in line for twenty minutes, get my food, find a table, try the food — and there would be an unhappy surprise. Practicing healthy eating, vegetarianism, is hard when you don’t have access to information. I told myself, “At least I have food. There are many people around the world who don’t have access to food. Who am I to complain?” I live in a world designed for people who can see and hear, and I figured it would just be another thing I would have to deal with, like not being able to drive, not being able to watch the latest movies, not being able to see who’s here in the room.

Technology has created numerous opportunities for people with disabilities, and we’re increasing those opportunities when we design technologies that are accessible. Providing accessible menus on websites, or sending them as digital accessible menus, are such opportunities that technology allows. The United Nations found that about 97% of websites have access barriers. These barriers create an information famine, limiting our opportunity for education, employment and self-growth. Blind individuals surf the web and use computers through screen readers. Screen readers are software applications that convert graphical information to speech or digital braille. Captions on videos ensure deaf individuals can access the audio content. Guidelines exist to help developers design accessible services. Web content accessibility guidelines, Apple accessibility guidelines for iOS, Android accessibility guidelines, and advocates are asking the technology community to design with accessibility in mind.

Thinking about access barriers that I faced at my college to access the menus, I realized it was part of the greater struggle to access information. Once I realized that, I made the decision to advocate for greater access, not just for myself, but for the rest of the blind community, and future blind students who would come to that college and want access to the information. So I returned to the cafeteria manager and explained that our community has decided that access for people with disabilities is a civil right, mandated by the Americans With Disabilities Act. Access for people with disabilities is not something to do on your free time, not an act of charity, but something we need to incorporate into all companies, something required by law. Through that conversation, he began to shift his perspective on disability, and he started providing braille access to the menus once I gave him that framework of civil rights and the Americans With Disabilities Act. From that point on, I had access to the menu. The following year there was a blind student, and he also gained access to the menu. I learned to advocate for myself and for others, and decided to make it a career.

After college I went to law school at Harvard. After law school I worked as a staff attorney at Disability Rights Advocates, and we advocated for a variety of different issues. One case was against a digital library that wasn’t making its books accessible, and through litigation, we were able to reach an agreement whereby they would work to make their website and app accessible to people with disabilities. The law is a powerful tool, and it’s available for advocates who want to make change through the law, but I also learned that litigation is inherently adversarial. I want people to make their companies, their organizations, accessible because they want to, because it’s the right thing — not because I sued them. So last month, I resigned from Disability Rights Advocates, and now work as an educator. Last week I spoke at Stanford, later this week I’m going to be at Cal Poly, and I want to work with organizations that know that disability rights are human rights, and if we work together to make our communities more inclusive, we will. I’m committed to advocacy, and being committed to social justice is different from fighting and engaging in adversarial pursuits like litigation.

You’re at a point right now where you’re thinking, “What’s next?” How can you further pursue truth and social justice? For the past four years you’ve developing talents in many different fields: science, technology, nursing, sign language. Use those skills, those talents, to pursue social justice and help remove barriers that exist in our world. The world needs you — the world needs all of us — to help make it more accessible, more inclusive, than Helen Keller experienced back in 1909. So thank you everyone for working to get here to this day, and please continue to use your talents to make our world a better place. Thank you.

By Haben Girma

Captioned video of Girma's Commencement Address (YouTube)

On leadership, personal sacrifices and getting up at 6 a.m. (Catherine Medin '16 Commencement address)

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