Momma, I Made It: Activist Haben Girma
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Disability lawyer Haben Girma talks tech and maybe teaching Nyge Turner and Merk Nguyen salsa dancing!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Check out the full conversation on YR Media’s Adult ISH podcast (episode 8 – Future ISH).
Nyge: I heard you got your start fighting for disability rights at one of my personal favorite places in the world: the school cafeteria.
Haben: Yes! I went to Lewis and Clark College and the cafeteria had about six different food stations. I couldn’t read the menu, not because of my blindness — disability is never the barrier. The problem was the format of the menu. I went to the cafeteria manager and asked, “Can you provide the menu in Braille, post it online, or e-mail it to me?” They told me they were busy, that I should stop complaining and be more appreciative. I don’t know about you, but if there’s chocolate cake and no one tells me, I’m not feeling appreciative! For the first few months, I tolerated it. I told myself, “Why should I complain?” Then my friends reminded me: it’s our choice to accept unfairness, or to advocate and do something about it.
Nyge: So, what’d you do?
Haben: I learned about the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. I went back to the manager and explained they have a legal obligation to make their services accessible. That conversation changed everything because they realized I wasn’t asking them for a favor, I was asking them to comply with the law. After that, they started providing the menu in accessible formats. Life became delicious!
Merk: Through the power of podcast magic it [seems like] we’re all chatting in the same room, but you’re actually in Palo Alto, California. I’m in the Big Apple. Nyge is in Oakland. Obviously [people] aren’t able to see the logistics of how we’re talking to each other right now. Can you describe how we’re communicating with you?
Haben: I can’t hear you or Nyge but I have an interpreter who’s typing up everything you’re both saying on a keyboard that’s being transmitted to my Braille computer. It’s a small device with Braille dots that pop up. I run my fingers over the dots, feel the dots, and that’s how I know what you’re saying.
Merk: You’ve also traveled the world being [an] advocate for people with disabilities. You’ve spoken at the White House, TED talks, and in many of those conversations, I admire how you reclaim the word “pioneer”. What’s your personal definition of that word and how does it guide your work?
Haben: A pioneer is someone who’s daring enough to try something new. It’s not just about going somewhere new. It could be a mindset or learning a new skill. You’ve mentioned salsa dancing. I learned that because I met a blind salsa dancer at a camp when I was 15. She let me touch her feet, her hands, and showed me how she moves for salsa dancing. I learned I could do it too and I’ve been dancing ever since.
Nyge: What was the hardest thing about learning to salsa?
Haben: Finding dance partners. A lot of people look around the room, watch people make eye contact, then they somehow get that person to come to them. I can’t do that because I can’t see the dancers, so I have several strategies. When I dance with someone I ask them to introduce me to someone else. Oftentimes, they have another friend or I’ll meet up with a friend there and they’ll help me find dance partners.
Merk: On your website it also says that you like to surf, something I’ll never do because of sharks. I’m sorry but screw that! What made you wake up one day and say, “You know what? I’m Haben Girma. I’m awesome. I want to surf”?
Haben: The world is dangerous. You can’t let sharks stop you from doing something fun!
Nyge: I wish I knew how to salsa dance and surf. I can’t do either.
Haben: You guys can do it! It’s a matter of trying, taking lessons, and pushing yourselves.
Nyge: I have a mean bachata but as far as salsa goes? That’s where I get mixed up. Maybe I need to learn from you how to surf and salsa dance! Since we’re talking to you as part of our ‘Momma, I Made It’ conversations, we want to know who your mom is — who is she to you?
Haben: My mom is amazing. She’s from Eritrea and grew up during the Eritrean-Ethiopian War. She took the dangerous journey walking from [her home country] to Sudan at about 16 years old. It took about three weeks and then she was a refugee for about 10 months. When she came to the United States, she had to learn how to get a job, improve her English. Those stories are stories of pioneering. Her stories of making it in America inspired me. She’s not deaf-blind, so growing up, many of the things I was experiencing were new to both of us.
Nyge: We know you’re out on the front lines pushing for tech accessibility for everyone. What kinds of access to tech issues are you really trying to tackle?
Haben: There are a lot of accessibility features that exist, but developers aren’t putting them into websites and apps. I’m trying to teach them to build with accessibility. Developers can have that information display visually, auditorily, through touch, through connecting to a digital Braille display. We don’t want separate websites or apps for people with disabilities. Separate is never equal. Sometimes people think, “Oh! We’ll have the blind website have the same features as the sighted website.” They’ll start out with good intentions, but down the line, the disability site won’t get updated as often. It’ll end up not having the same features and it becomes inferior. That’s not fair.