A Champion for Deafblind Communication
By Deborah Kendrick
The 2012 implementation of the section of
the 2010 Communications and Video Accessibility Act has created a sea change in
the culture. Because of it, tens of thousands of deafblind individuals have
received equipment and training, enabling them to communicate in a new way. In
fact, it has allowed to blossom a whole new family of people with disabilities,
many of whom were all too silent and invisible before now.
We will be hearing from many other
deafblind people in the years ahead, but one remarkable person who is blazing a
trail deserves special recognition. President Barack Obama dubbed her a
Champion of Change at a 2013 White House ceremony, Business Insider
named her one of 2013s most impressive students, and she
holds a prestigious position as a Scadden law fellow at a Berkeley, Calif., law
Haben (rhymes with robin) Girma is only 26.
She is the first deaf and blind student to graduate from Harvard Law School,
and shes not losing any time resting on her abundant laurels.
While at Harvard, she also was active in
the Black Law Students Association and ballroom dance team, but she pursued a
law degree because she wanted to lay claim to equal rights and access for
herself and all people with disabilities.
Last July, she filed a lawsuit with
Disability Rights Advocates on behalf of the National Federation of the Blind
and others against Scribd, an online reading service with about 40 million
titles, because that collection is not accessible to people using
Eight months later, on March 19, William
K. Sessions III, a senior judge on the United States District Court for the
District of Vermont, issued the opinion that entities hosting websites and apps
are bound by the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In other
words, it was a Haben Girma victory!
And now shes taking on TED Talks
because that treasure trove of presentations on all things related to
technology, entertainment and design, among other great ideas, is not
accessible to people who cant hear the voices.
She had been invited to give a TED talk at
the January 2014 conference in Baltimore. Her topic, of course, was disability
rights. But when she logged in to review the recommended talk for preparation,
she realized that she couldnt watch it. How does she watch a
YouTube video? The same way she watches movies, plays and television shows: by
reading the captions or transcriptions (sometimes typed nonstop by friends) on
her BrailleNote Apex electronic braille display.
After that incident, Girma persuaded TED
to caption her talk so that deaf and hard-of-hearing friends can access it, but
she wants all TED Talks to be accessible -- in more than 100 languages.
Are you having trouble imagining such a
young woman? She is not a marvel, a paragon, a robot. Well, OK, maybe she is a
marvel. And she also is -- full disclosure -- my friend.
A personal incident may shed some light
on her talents. Last summer, she and I were among four people spending an
evening at my friend Bryan Bashins home in Berkeley, Calif. Gathered
around the dining room table, amid wine and Thai food, all four of us could be
seen typing frenetically on various keyboards.
Actually, Haben was the only one not
typing. Her hands flew back and forth across her braille display, reading the
words we typed and spoke, taking part in an intellectually engaging
conversation that was as intense as any Ive entertained.
Habens braille display and wireless
keyboard facilitate face-to-face conversations with anyone who can type. Words
typed on the keyboard show up on the display, and Haben replies in her clear,
almost musical, voice.
To add yet another extraordinary
dimension, our friend Michelle has a vocal complication (she explained it as
being given the choice between breathing and speaking, and she chose to
breathe) that makes it difficult for some of us to understand her words. In yet
one more stroke of brilliance in an already magical evening, Michelle began
silently typing her words to Haben, so that Haben could voice them to Bryan and
me on her behalf.
Sound complicated? Tedious? Exhausting?
Believe me when I say that it was none of the above. It was an energizing,
thrilling exchange of ideas, anecdotes, information and fun.
While at Harvard, she also was active in the
Black Law Students Association and ballroom dance team, but she pursued a law
degree because she wanted to lay claim to equal rights and access for herself
and all people with disabilities.
Knowing that Bryan and I have been friends
for many years, Haben developed an impish refrain that evening whenever there
was an inkling of a lull in the conversation.
Bryan? Deborah? she would
trill. Tell me more stories you have shared!
Wed pour the wine, pass the curry
and continue our philosophizing. Im not sure whether Habens
appetite for stories was satisfied that night, but I am sure that she will be
creating many of her own in the years ahead. The Champion for Change has only
warmed up, and she is capable of many a legal and cultural marathon.
No matter how long we have been in this
disability arena, we can all learn new things and have the potential of being
dazzled and amazed.
Haben Girma and other deafblind
individuals have dazzled and amazed me for sure. With new access to
communication tools, how many more previously silent and invisible stars are
soon to shine?
Deborah Kendrick is a newspaper columnist, editor and
poet. She can be reached at Kendrick.firstname.lastname@example.org.