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Deaf-Blind Lawyer Haben Girma

Meet the Deaf-Blind Lawyer Fighting For People With Disabilities

It's easy to forget how inaccessible our world is to anyone with limited vision or hearing. Even something as simple as watching a Facebook video is a challenge due to access barriers. Haben Girma is fighting to change that.

Ahead is a transcript of Haben's interview so that it's accessible to everyone.

Video: Haben sits on a couch

Haben: Deaf-blindness is a rare disability, so most of the time I'm the first person in a certain situation. So I'm used to being a pioneer.

Video: The first shot is Haben typing on a keyboard, and the second shot is Haben speaking at an event

Title reads: Meet the Deaf-Blind Lawyer Fighting For People With Disabilities

Video: Haben sits on a couch

Haben: A lot of my friends know better than to tell me that I can't do something because that's actually encouragement to try to find a solution.

Video: In the first shot, Haben communicates via sign language with a student. In the next four shots, she surfs, dances, skis, and scales a building.

Graphic: Haben Girma was born deaf-blind, meaning she has limited hearing and vision

But that hasn't stopped her from surfing, dancing, skiing, and even scaling a building

Video: Haben smiles

Graphic: Growing up, Haben attended mainstream public schools and quickly learned to adapt

Video: Haben sits on a couch, talking

Haben: When I was in school, I had a teacher who trained me how to travel as a blind person.

Video: A bus drives down the street

Haben: I remember one of the lessons, she intentionally had me miss my stop so that I could learn how to problem solve when things go wrong.

Video: Haben works with a young student

Graphic: But not all students are so lucky

Video: Haben sits on a couch, talking

Haben: Many students with disabilities don't have access to information when they're in school.

Video: Close-up of a hand reading Braille on a keyboard

Haben: We need to make sure the schools have access to accessible technology, have access to qualified teachers who can provide training.

Video: In the first shot, Haben uses her Braille keyboard. In the second shot, a hearing aid is placed in a woman's ear.

Graphic: Thanks to assistive technology, deaf-blind individuals have various ways to communicate

Video: Haben sits on a couch, talking. We see sporadic shots of her using her Braille keyboard.

Haben: Deaf-blindness is a spectrum. There are people with limited vision and limited hearing, and we use a variety of different communication styles: sign language, print on palm. What I use primarily is a keyboard and digital Braille display — so people will type on a wireless keyboard, and I'll read in digital Braille.

Video: President Barack Obama communicates with Haben via keyboard, and they shake hands

Obama: Hi, Haben!

Haben: Hello. It's good to meet you!

Video: Maxine, a German Shepherd, stands with Haben

Graphic: Haben also has her trusty guide dog, Maxine, by her side

Video: Haben stands outside in front of a leafy wall, talking

Haben: Her job is to navigate around obstacles.

Video: Maxine guides Haben around a trailer hitch, then walks with her down a street

Haben: I make the decisions, and she follows me.

Video: Image of Haben in a graduation gown speaking at a university, followed by an image of Haben paddleboarding across a body of water

Graphic: Early on, Haben quickly learned to be her own biggest advocate

Video: Haben sitting on a couch, talking

Haben: When I was young, I had to teach people what I need, and that process helped me build up self-advocacy skills.

Video: People gather food at a cafeteria

Haben: There was one incident when I was in college. The college cafeteria would provide menus only in print, and blind students couldn't access the menu.

Video: Haben speaks at a TED Talk event

Graphic: Haben asked the cafeteria manager to provide an accessible menu, but her request was brushed off

Video: Haben sits on a couch, talking, followed by a shot of Haben on a laptop in the park, researching

Haben: Later, I did research. I learned that I have a right to information, and I returned to the cafeteria manager and explained, "I'm actually not asking for favors. I'm asking you to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act."

Video: Time-lapse shots of people walking through a crowded street, a busy city intersection, and traffic on the freeway

Graphic: The Americans With Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, prohibits discrimination based on disability in all areas of public life


Video: Haben sits on a couch, talking

Haben: It changed the whole culture in the cafeteria. They started providing menus in accessible formats. And that taught me that if I advocate for myself, I change the community.

Video: Haben, in a graduation gown, poses with her diploma at her graduation from Harvard Law School

Graphic: That self-advocacy led her to become the first deaf-blind graduate of Harvard Law School

Video: Haben sitting on the couch, talking

Haben: Harvard told me, "We've never had a deaf-blind student before." And I told Harvard, "I've never been to Harvard Law School before." We didn't have all the answers, but we pioneered our way using assistive technology and high expectations.

Video: Images of Haben meeting Bill Clinton and Barack Obama

As a disability rights lawyer, Haben is devoted to breaking down societal barriers to people with all forms of disabilities

Video: Haben sits on a couch, talking

Haben: Disability is never the barrier. It's the environment that's the barrier. A lot of barriers right now are digital.

Video: A woman types on a computer

Haben: The vast majority of websites have access barriers.

Video: Haben sits on a couch, talking

Haben: Sometimes I'm shopping online and the technology I use, a screen reader, can't figure out what's on the screen. That's a barrier.

Video: Haben speaks at a conference, instructing the audience

Haben: So what I do is provide training to teach organizations that if they make their technology accessible, they could reach more people, including people with disabilities. There are 57 million Americans with disabilities, and around the world there are 1.3 billion people with disabilities.

Video: Haben and Maxine cross the street

Haben: So let's focus on changing society and removing the barriers, rather than putting pressure on people with disabilities to change how they are.

Video: Images of Haben greeting people and shaking their hands

Graphic: So what can nondisabled people do to encourage equal access?

Video: Haben sits on a couch, talking

Haben: Everybody plays a role in making our community more inclusive. Look around you.

Video: A man in a wheelchair wheels himself down the street

Haben: Are there barriers for wheelchair users?

Video: 2 deaf women communicate via sign language

Haben: Are there communication barriers for individuals who are deaf?

Video: A woman reads Braille

Haben: Are there print barriers for individuals who are blind?

Video: Haben sits on a couch, talking

Haben: Once you identify those barriers, look for ways to make them more inclusive.

Video: Haben greets 2 people with a smile

Haben: We all have challenges in different forms, and it's beautiful to find solutions and make it through these challenges.

Image Source: Kyle Cowgill/POPSUGAR
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