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Watch Featured Speaker Haben Girma from the 2017 Annual Meeting

Category: Alliance Blog

We were very fortunate to have Global Inclusion Leader Haben Girma speak at the 2017 Annual Meeting and MuseumExpo as one of our Featured Speakers. Watch the video and read the transcript below.


[Haben] Good morning.

[Audience] Good morning.

[Haben] Thank you to Sam for that wonderful introduction. I also want to say thank you to Andrea Streat for welcoming me here and helping me share my story with this community. As Sam mentioned, I’m deaf-blind, so I can’t see audience members, and I can’t really hear audience feedback, so what I’m gonna do is I have a brail display, a small computer with digital dots on the bottom, and my interpreter, April, is sitting on the side watching audience members and typing feedback, so if people are smiling and look engaged. She says you are clapping. She’ll also tell me if people look bored. My name is Haben Girma. The name Haben comes from Eritrea, a small African country. Ethiopia borders to the south, and to the north is the Red Sea. My mother grew up during the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. There was a lot of violence during the war. A lot of fear spilled into the classrooms. My mother found stories as a way to heal and grow and find peace away from the violence. Stories are powerful. Stories influence the organizations we design, the products we build, and the futures we imagine for ourselves. Stories inspired my mother. She heard many stories that said, “America is the land of opportunity. “America is the land of freedom.” She journeyed for two weeks, walking from Eritrea to Sudan, spent several months as a refugee in Sudan, and a refugee organization helped her come to the United States. Several years later, older, wiser, my mother realized geography doesn’t create justice. People create justice. Communities create justice. All of us face the choice to accept oppression around us or advocate for justice. As the daughter of refugees … As the daughter of refugees, a black woman, disabled, stories sometimes say my life doesn’t matter. I choose to live a story that says my life does matter, and disability, or refugee status, or the color of my skin won’t determine my story. We all have the power to create our own stories, and in particular for disability, I choose to believe that alternative techniques are equal in value to mainstream techniques, so from everything in my life from reading to public speaking I’ve found alternative techniques that allow me to access information in a different way, but that different way is equal in value to mainstream way of doing things. For example, a lot of people read books with their eyes, print. I found that I can read books through brail, by using my fingers. Walking around I can use a guide dog. Maxine is my guide dog. She’s been trained to guide around obstacles. I’ve been trained to use a white cane. I salsa dance. I can’t hear the music, but I can feel the beat through the people I dance with. These are all alternative techniques. Many people don’t hear these stories, but they’re important stories. Many of you have to make decisions about which stories you highlight, and whenever possible it helps our community if you choose to highlight different stories, stories that remind us that different ways of doing things are equal in value to mainstream ways of doing things. In one of my classes at law school, there was a student sitting next to me, and she wanted to say hi, but she wasn’t sure how. She waved hi, but I couldn’t see it. She voice 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 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. After class I saw the message, and I reached out to her and explained how I communicate. If she types on the keyboard, I’ll be able to read her words on a digital brail display. When people meet me, the first question they ask is usually, “How do you communicate?” The second question they usually ask is, “Have you heard of Helen Keller?” Yes, actually. Helen Keller was an amazing deaf-blind woman who lived from 1880 to 1968. She spent her whole life advocating women’s rights, disability rights. Many people reduce the story of Helen Keller to one thing, a woman who succeeded despite her disabilities. Disability never holds anyone back. Disability is never the barrier. The barrier is society and expectations. Helen Keller, when she was looking for a college to attend, Harvard wouldn’t admit her. Back then Harvard was only for men. Helen’s disability didn’t hold her back. She was brilliant and hard working. Her gender didn’t hold her back. Women are brilliant and hard working. It was the community at Harvard that chose to practice exclusion. Helen went to college, she went to Radcliffe College. Back then, Radcliffe was for women, right next to Harvard University. Now Radcliffe is part of Harvard University, but back then Harvard practiced exclusion, and it was their choice to deny access to a group of people, never the disability or one’s gender that holds people back. As another example, Helen’s community wouldn’t 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 family, her community prevented her from marrying the person she loved. All the barriers that exist are created by people, and it’s up to all of us to choose to remove these barriers. When I was in college, I was faced with this choice. What could I do to remove barriers in my community? How can I be the change I want to see in the world? I went to Lewis and Clark College. It’s a small college in Portland, Oregon. The cafeteria served as a central place for people to hang out and relax between classes. When you enter the cafeteria, there are large windows along three of the walls, showcasing Portland’s rain. Along the fourth wall were food stations, and people would enter the cafeteria, browse a print menu, and then go to their station of choice. As a blind person, I couldn’t read the menu. My disability wasn’t the problem. Disability is never the problem. It was the cafeteria’s choice to provide the menu only in print, so I went to the manager and I explained, “This menu is inaccessible. “Can you provide it in brail or digitally, “so that I can use a screen reader to access it?” And, he said, “Sorry, we’re too busy. “Stop complaining and be more appreciative.” I don’t know about you, but if there’s chocolate cake at station four and no one tells me … I don’t feel appreciative. Back then I was a vegetarian. I would go to a random station, get food, find a table, try the food, and there would be an unhappy surprise. Sometimes I’d wait in line for 20 minutes, and they’d be serving hamburgers. If they just told me, “Station one hamburger, “station two Tortellini with smoked Gouda cheese,” I would know to skip station one and go straight to station two. I can use my guide dog, I can use a white cane. I can travel around independently. I’ve developed those skills, but I need a community and institution like a college to provide information in accessible formats. For the first few months I just tolerated the situation. I told myself, “At least I have food.” Many people around the world struggle for food. Who am I to complain? My mother spent 10 months as a refugee in Sudan, and I was getting an education in Portland, Oregon. Who am I to complain? I thought maybe the manager was right. Maybe I should stop complaining, and I went to my friends, and I talked to my friends about the situation, and they told me it’s my choice. It’s my choice to accept the situation, or advocate for more opportunities and greater access. All these small decisions make a huge difference. If we want to shatter the glass ceiling, we need to start with the small steps to make our whole community inclusive. I had a dream of being a part of the disability rights movement. I had a dream of becoming a lawyer and making a difference for people with disabilities. I had a dream of eating that chocolate cake. The American with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990. Congress requires places of public accommodation to provide access for people with disabilities. That cafeteria is required by law to ensure that people with disabilities, like myself, have access. After doing my research, I went back to the cafeteria manager, and I explained that I’m not asking for a favor. I’m asking that the cafeteria comply with the law, and after I framed the issue as a civil rights issue he started to take me more seriously, and after that they started providing me the menu in accessible formats. Life became delicious. The following year, another blind student came to the college. He didn’t have to fight for access. He had immediate access to the cafeteria menu, and he could make informed food choices. Small things make a huge difference, and when we practice these small things we develop the skills to tackle even greater challenges and help our whole community become more inclusive. I was inspired to go to law school, and in 2010 I entered Harvard Law School. 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. It’s okay to not have the answer, as long as you try. Try one solution. If that doesn’t work, try another solution, and we kept doing that, and in 2013 I graduated, and now work as a civil rights lawyer helping people all over the world, and it all comes down to these small choices. Which stories do we elevate? What do we believe about access and inclusion? These small choices make a huge difference. The dominant story of disability is that of challenge and overcoming. I believe that disability is about opportunities for innovation and growth. I want to show you a photo that demonstrates how disability drives innovation and shows that inclusion is a choice. Next slide? So, we have a photo where President Obama is standing at a table, typing on a Bluetooth keyboard, and I’m standing on the other side of the table reading from a digital brail display. President Obama usually communicates by voice. When I met him, we explained that I am deaf blind, and to communicate with people we need them to type, so that I could read their words, and understand what they’re saying. President Obama gracefully switched from voicing to typing, so we could communicate, so that I could have access to his words. That’s a choice. There are a lot of people who would say, “No, that’s different, that’s weird.” President Obama shows how these small things can make a huge difference. Disability has been driving innovation for years. I want to share a story of one of the earliest keyboards. Back in 1808, there were two Italian friends, one sighted, one blind. They wanted to send each other letters. These letters back in 1808, before brail, before computers, letters were usually written by hand, and that’s not accessible to someone who’s blind, so they though what can they do, so that the blind friend could write letters to her sighted friend? You might think, “Oh, she could speak the letter, “and someone else would write it down,” but these letters needed to stay private. They were love letters. So, they thought about it, and eventually Turri, the name of the Italian, built one of the first working typewriters. He built this, so that a blind woman would have the ability to write letters independently and privately. Behind many of the innovations throughout history is someone with a disability. We rarely hear these stories. Disability drives innovation, and if we have the opportunity and the choice we need to help highlight these stories, so that we all know that one of the benefits of making our communities inclusive is innovation. Next slide? All around the world, deaf communities have been looking at different ways to communicate, and they’ve developed sign languages. Every community has their own sign language. The dominant one in the United States is American Sign Language. In other parts of the world we have … In France, there’s French sign language. Across the pond in the UK, they have a completely different language called British Sign Language, and it makes no sense to me. People with disabilities have developed these forms of communication, and for deaf-blind individuals they hold a hand over another person’s hand to feel the signs, and when I’m signing with someone, I can feel the signs to access that information. Next slide? Another form of communication is dance, and there are a lot of communities that try to deny access and say, “That’s impossible, that’s difficult,” but I was fortunate to find teachers who understood that dance is physical, and there are physical ways to access dance, so through the people I dance with I’m able to access the music and connect with different communities. Next slide? Museums are great spaces to explore all the different ways we can communicate information. Touch is a powerful form of communicating information. We have a photo from a museum in Madrid, and this museum has a tactile sculpture of the Eiffel Tower. When I was 22 years old, I went to Madrid on vacation, and I learned what the Eiffel Tower feels like for the first time. All my life I’d heard about it, but often it’s only portrayed in pictures, in movies, and not until I visited that museum in Madrid did I actually feel what it feels like. I’d love to see more museums providing information in physical formats. This is your choice. You have the power to elevate more stories, and when you highlight information in multiple formats, touch, visual, audio, you share stories with even more populations. People with disabilities are the largest minority group. In the United States there are 57 million people with disabilities. Around the world it’s 1.3 billion people, so you reach more people when you highlight these stories. One format that is helpful is digital format. Digital starts at ones and zeroes, and you have the power to convert that into multiple accessible formats. Blind individuals access digital formats through screen readers, and I’m going to share a short video that highlights how screen readers work. Next slide? A screen reader is a program that converts graphical information to speech or digital brail. The screen reader on the iPhone is called Voiceover. Voiceover also works on the Mac, iPad, and the Apple Watch, so when I’m using my phone I use Voiceover. Voiceover can speak out loud, and send information to the digital reel display.

[Automated Voice] News, checking for other news. National Geographic, unread. World’s Largest Rodents on Land from Toronto Zoo.

Skip over related stories to continue reading article

[Haben] I’m panning right on the brail display using the advanced forward button. If I wanted to instead use hand gestures on the iPhone I could flick right with one finger. To open an item, I can double tap anywhere on the screen.

[Automated Voice] Text size, caption, title, title, title, after escaping from the Hyde Park Zoo in Canada two capybaras have eluded capture, by Jason Vidal, published June 9th, most people do their best to avoid rodents of unusual size, but after a pair of capybaras escaped from Toronto’s Hyde Park Zoo, alert, Gordon, hi I’m at the door, sushi, pot of food, fish cake with swirl design.

[Haben] My friend’s at the door, so I’m just gonna let him know.

[Automated Voice] Close, button, reply, button, messages notification. Hang in there, I’m almost done with this demo. Send, button.

Voiceover has allowed me to access more information, news, mail, and messages, and it’s also a way for me to know when friends are at the door. Thanks for watching, bye! So, blind individuals access computers, mobile phones, digital technology through screen readers, and when you program your digital services to be compatible with screen readers more people can access them. We’re not asking for a separate website, an app for blind people. We want one mainstream service that everyone can use, and you can share with your digital team that there are guidelines, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, and Android and Apple mobile accessibility guidelines to ensure that your digital services are accessible to everyone. The deaf community uses captions. Captions are text that appears on screen to provide access to audio content on videos. Another feature is assistive devices like brail displays. There are 100 different kinds of brail displays. People use other assistive devices too. Switch control helps individuals with limited mobility, maybe not able to use hands to use a standard keyboard and mouse, so they’ll use switch control. These are some of the basic accessibility features that exist now. Keep innovating. By highlighting stories of disability, driving innovation, you help other people continue to choose more features and design more products. This is what we have now, but there are more features that can come up in our future. Next slide? Lots of benefits for choosing inclusion. One, you reach more people. 57 million Americans with disabilities, and 1.3 billion people with disabilities around the world. When you make your services accessible, it’s easier for people to find your services. You increase content discovery. When you add captions to videos, more text is associated with the videos. When you add image descriptions to your photos online, more text is association with those photos, so when people do keyword searches it’s easier to find your product, your exhibit descriptions, online services because of the additional text. You also drive innovation when you make your services accessible, and more importantly if all of those things are not persuasive enough, you meet your legal requirements. Museums are places of public accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act, so please do make your spaces accessible to people with disabilities. Next slide? My name is Haben Girma, and I’m going to be available at the AAM booth to take additional questions, meet with people. You’re also welcome to reach out to me through social media, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, my website. Please continue sharing stories of disability as an accent in driving innovation. Thank you.

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