Disability activist uses CRSP lecture to advocate for accessibility


Haben Girma is wary of the word “inspiring,” especially when people use the term to describe her life. 

“A lot of non-disabled people use the word ‘inspiring,’ and a lot of disabled people feel uncomfortable with that word because it’s often used in situations where it becomes a euphemism for pity,” said Girma, the first deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School. “I’m inspired to stop complaining because at least my life isn’t as miserable as yours, that kind of ‘inspiration’ is harmful and continues marginalization.”

The only time she’s OK with the word “inspired,” she said, is when it’s used for positive action.

“For example, I’m inspired to make my classes accessible,” Girma said. “I’m inspired to increase hiring of disabled social workers. That is a positive inspiration.” 

And Girma encouraged attendees to make positive actions in their lives and the lives of others during her virtual lecture on Feb. 2, part of the 20th anniversary celebration for the Center for Race and Social Problems in the School of Social Work.

Girma, who was featured as a Florence Gibbs Momeyer Endowed Lecturer, is a civil rights lawyer and advocate for disability justice. She’s been honored by former President Barack Obama as the White House Champion of Change and has been included in the Forbes 30 under 30 list.

Girma wrote a 2019 memoir, “Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law,” documenting her experiences traveling around the world advocating for disability rights.

Her lecture covered topics related to ableism, communication, civil rights advocacy, digital accessibility and more. The lecture itself offered multiple accommodations for people with disabilities, including an American Sign Language translator and closed captioning through Zoom.

Girma recounted several times in her life when she encountered ableism, the systemic belief and practice that disabled people are inferior to non-disabled people.

Her family, she said, is from Eritrea, Ethiopia, and her parents didn’t know about sign language or even people like disability rights advocate Helen Keller, who was the first deafblind person to earn her bachelor’s at Radcliffe College of Harvard University.

People around her pitied her, Girma said, believing that she’d never go to school or get a job because of her disabilities.

“That is ableism,” she said. “Ableism comes up in our schools, in government policies, in employment. It is so widespread that a lot of people don’t notice it. ... Ableism is so widespread that it’s considered fact rather than a systemic problem.”

She said she had to learn, as a disabled black woman, to resist ableism in her life, and the beliefs that she wouldn’t succeed or that her life didn’t matter because of her disabilities.

There were multiple times in her life when employers — even for hands-on jobs like folding laundry or washing dishes — refused to hire her because of her disabilities.

“The dominant narrative is disability is a burden on society,” Girma said. “I had to learn to define disability for myself. And I found that disability is often an opportunity for innovation. If you can’t do something one way, there are other alternative ways to do those things.”

The issue, she added, is getting others to believe these alternate communication techniques — such as Braille, sign languages and tactile sign languages — have an equal value to mainstream communication styles.

But Girma sought opportunities for innovation throughout her life, and other disabled people are innovating along with her.

The largest barriers Girma has faced in her life, she added, stem from ableism and not her disabilities.

She shared videos and examples of her travels, the times she went camping, learned surfing and salsa dancing and visited disabled students in schools.

“Disabled people have been doing this all over the world,” Girma said. “These stories have been hidden. We need the public to know about these stories, understand that disabled people are talented.”

She later gave several examples of things people can do now to help improve digital accessibility. Examples include adding image descriptions when posting photos to social media, websites and digital learning tools and adding captions to videos and learning tools that are in video form.

Additionally, she encouraged people to think of alternative ways to communicate or reach out to people who are actively working with them.

People have an opportunity to deepen their understanding of their fields and programs, once they begin thinking of making programs or courses more accessible. 

There is a widespread myth, she said, that there are two kinds of people: dependent and independent. The reality is that we are all interdependent on one another.

“Let’s be honest about the fact that all of us depend on other people,” Girma said.

Members of the Pitt community can view the rest of the lecture through MyPittVideo. Users will be required to sign in using Pitt Passport.

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at dharrell@pitt.edu or 412-383-9905.


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