Advocating for Others Starts with Yourself

"When you assert your dreams, your needs and your rights, opportunities will be limitless." —Haben Girma

Haben Girma speaking to a crowd at Perkins.
January 16, 2012

Perkins President Steven Rothstein concluded the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day assembly, on Jan. 16, 2012, with a call to action.

"Civil rights is up to all of you," he said. "Don't wait for the next Martin Luther King Jr. or Helen Keller; freedom must be demanded by the oppressed." Yet he acknowledged every movement needs a leader who can articulate these demands. For Americans who are disabled, they have found one such advocate in the annual assembly's keynote, Haben Girma.

Prior to President Rothstein's closing statements, a packed Dwight Hall lent their ears or hands (in the case of sign-language interpreters) to the inspirational words of disability rights advocate, Haben Girma, the first Harvard Law School student in history who is deafblind. Besides her personal academic accomplishments, she strategized the arguments to persuade Congress to increase funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and to pass the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (21st CVAA), which became law two months after her visit to Washington, D.C. Reading from her refreshable braille display, Haben referenced her own life experiences to illustrate two key components of self-advocacy for disability rights:

  1. Educating people about the legal rights of people with disabilities;
  2. Creative problem-solving skills to find alternative techniques for accomplishing tasks

While attending Lewis & Clark College in California, Haben invoked the power of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to get the school's cafeteria to comply with her request to have each day's menu emailed to her—Title III of the ADA requires businesses to make reasonable accomodations for persons with disabilities—when the manager of the cafeteria said he was too busy to perform what he considered to be a favor. She wrote to him saying, if the cafeteria refused to comply with the ADA, she would sue.

"Part of me was nervous and worried," she said, "but another part of me was excited. I had a dream of joining the civil rights movement, a dream of pushing aside more barriers for all students with disabilities."

Despite her reservations, the threat of a lawsuit proved effective for Haben and any future patrons who were disabled eating in that cafeteria. The manager apologized to her and she received a menu in her email each day after that.

"I forced him to temporarily set aside his attitude toward blindness and instead consider whether my request was reasonable," she said. "He originally thought providing access for blind students was an act of charity, a favor he could do when he had some spare time." Yet through Haben, the ADA taught this manager that granting equal access to people with disabilities should not be something done on a whim; it should be a normative behavior.

Haben's example of creative problem-solving (her second principle for self-advocacy of disability rights) drew upon her experiences rock climbing—a hobby she says is great for people who are blind as they feel around the contours of the rocks for sure hand- and footholds. When the instructor denied her the opportunity to belay—a technique for holding a climber's ropes in case they lose their grip—because she may not be able to hear the climber when they needed to be let down, she consulted a rock-climbing expert for a solution. Instead of audio cues, they came up with a signaling system involving distinct tugs on the rope, when the climber wished to come down.

"I want to remind all of you," she said, addressing the many members of the audience who are blind, "that you don't have to be an expert on blindness. When you run into an obstacle, contact an expert in a related field who can help develop innovative solutions."

After her speech, Haben remained by the stage in the front of Dwight Hall to meet Perkins alumni, students and staff, many of whom were blind or deafblind. Richard Chapman, (Perkins School for the Blind, '64) who now volunteers at his alma mater, thanked Haben for her "wonderful speech" and wished her good health and lots of success in her career. Haben's interpreter typed Richard's kind words into a keyboard, which fed the information into Haben's electronic, refreshable braille display. Perkins staffer Kate Crohan typed directly into Haben's display, asking her what type of brailler she uses; and the young disasility rights advocate conversed with Perkins Library Director Kim Charlson, comparing their seeing eye dogs through this elaborate communication setup, which unfolded fluidly as Haben effortlessly voiced her responses to all of these enthusiastic questions.

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