Standing across from the then US President Barack Obama at the White House, Haben Girma, appeared to be summing up in those words her long-life goal and passion: advocate for disability rights.
It was a warm day in July 2015 as the US celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a law that banned all discrimination based on disabilities and, among other things, mandated accessibility accommodations in the public space, including on public transport systems.
An “American with Eritrean and Ethiopian heritage, my ancestors shape who I am,” was how Ms. Girma introduced herself during a conversation with Africa Renewal, early this month, almost six years after that ceremony at the White House.
“I am the first deaf-blind person to graduate from Harvard Law School,” she remarked “and people think my disability challenged me.”
She said: “the biggest challenge is ableism, not my disability.” Then she almost instantly asked back: “do you know about ableism?”
The term ‘ableism’ is new to a lot of people, she says, and “that’s ok.” And she would come back to it several times during the conversation for emphasis.
Ableism, she explained “is the systemic oppression of disabled people, the actions and beliefs labeling them as inferior to other people.”
“Sight should not be a requirement”
Would ableism then encompass the lack of efforts in ensuring equal rights, equal opportunities and equal access for disabled people?
“That’s right,” Ms. Girma said: “There are examples of ableism all around us, but at first it is hard to notice because they seem so normal.”
And to make her point, she gave one example out of many she has experienced over the years.
For example, when she wanted to donate to an international organization that deals with refugees, she couldn’t do it on her own because the website did not work with Voice Over, a popular screen reader many blind people use. Ultimately, she had to rely on a sighted person to help her with the site.
“Sight should not be a requirement for webpages,” she said. “Maybe that was an accidental barrier for blind donors, but accidental ableism is still ableism.”
Ableism, studies have shown, is pervasive. It can be lack of accessibility or lack of appropriate accommodation in public transport systems, building designs or even deliberate attitudes. It can also be colloquial expressions littered throughout language.
For instance, languages worldwide are full of colourful expressions and insults that appear to equate disability with something negative.
‘Crippled’, ‘retarded’, ‘fall on deaf ears’, ‘make a dumb choice’, ‘turning a blind eye’, etc. are just a few of the expressions people use to make a point, not always being aware of the harm, hurt and prejudices behind them.
The dignity of disabled people has not always been respected, and they have not always been afforded equal rights and equal opportunities.
When in May 2008 the world adopted the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol, the first 21st Century comprehensive human rights treaty, it extended to the global stage changes in attitudes and approach to disability issues that started in individual countries such as the US.
These were the results of decades of advocacy from disabled people to have their civil rights of non-discrimination and equality recognized and protected.
The Convention affirmed that people with disabilities have the same rights as every human and deserve to enjoy those rights.
One year after the ceremony in the White House, Ms. Girma pointed to an international gathering of applications developers that technological innovation can help barriers.
“If you can’t do something one way, it’s an opportunity to create something new. A blind teacher could not read with his eyes, so he created a system for reading with his fingers. That system was named after him, Braille.”
Years later, Ms. Girma would take the Braille system further by developing a text-to-braille communication system.
“I paired a braille computer with an external keyboard so people could type to me, and their words would instantly pop up in braille. This allows me to read what they are saying, and then respond by voice or sign language or a computer, depending on what the person needs,” she said.
Over the past decades, as advances in technology have made it easier for people to communicate, it has facilitated access to communication for a lot of people. And “when apps are designed with accessibility in mind, people with disabilities like me, can use them and are able to connect and share information with people,” she reminded the gathering of app developers.
As an activist, an advocate for disabilities rights and a lawyer, Ms. Girma’s advocacy and professional choices have been shaped by her day-to-day experience.
Technological innovations, including digital, are an invaluable tool in promoting accessibility, yet, in less technologically advanced societies, digital innovations, while widely recognized as important, may take time to take hold.
“The problem is not tech, the problem is ableism,” she responded. “Ableism impacts education, employment, healthcare, and every aspect of society.”
So, fighting ableism to remove social barriers is a constant battle for Ms. Girma. As an American with Eritrean and Ethiopian heritage, “my ancestors shape who I am,” and “constantly resisting racism, sexism, and ableism also shape who I am,” she added.
And if people feel inspired, she pointed out, why not “pick a barrier in the community and commit to doing the work to help remove the barrier?”
After all, “it’s my hope,” she said, that “more people will be inspired to eradicate ableism.”