Full text of Disability Rights Advocate Haben Girma’s talk: Public Service Lawyers as Pioneering Advocates at TEDxBaltimore 2014 conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Public service lawyers as pioneering advocates by Haben Girma at TEDxBaltimore 2014
My name is Haben Girma. I work as a Skadden Fellow at Disability Rights Advocates. In other words, I’m a lawyer.
What’s a lawyer? Well, there are many stereotypes, negative stereotypes of lawyers: People who never give you a straight answer; people who just want your money; people who aren’t even people, they’re sharks.
These images are so strongly imbedded in our culture that people tell me, half-joking, “I don’t like lawyers.”
When people think of lawyers, they really think of just one type of lawyer. Think about it, imagine, when you envision a lawyer, what do you see? Do you see a woman? Is that the first thing that comes to mind? How about someone using a wheelchair? Do you see someone who is deaf and signing? Or even, do you see someone who’s nice?
There are many types of lawyers, and public service lawyers are changing what it means to be a lawyer. These are people who work and advocate for communities they love. For some of these lawyers, personal experiences fuel the desire to put an end to widespread injustice. People who experience challenges sometimes develop strengths that make them great advocates.
Lawyers take experiences of poverty, race, gender, disability, or other forms of discrimination, and use that knowledge as a ladder for legal advocacy. For me, a lifetime of needing to advocate for myself — prepared me for the field of law. My disability is deafblindness. Helen Keller paved a path of possibilities for deaf-blind children and adults who came after her. These individuals need to move forward as pioneers, in a world designed for people who can see and hear.
Many members of minority groups move forward as pioneers. The process of pioneering one’s way through obstacles builds strong self-advocacy skills that can be used in the field of law or other forms of advocacy.
As a pioneer, I went to the perfect college: Lewis & Clark. They call their football team the Pioneers. Their favorite place to hang out in downtown Portland? Pioneer Square. What else? Oh, and they call their school bus the Pioneer Express.
As a pioneer, I lived for two years in the dorms at Lewis & Clark, and I ate at the cafeteria. The cafeteria had about 5 different food stations, and there was a menu at the door, and people would read the menu and choose what they wanted to eat.
Blind students like myself couldn’t read the menu. The staff at the cafeteria offered to read me the menu, but I couldn’t hear it. As a blind student, my first choice would be to read the menu in braille.
Braille takes time to produce, so we compromised. The staff agreed to email me the menu at the start of each meal, and I would be able to read it on my computer using a screenreader. It was a great idea, but the cafeteria constantly forgot to email the menus.
Since I couldn’t read the menu, and I couldn’t hear the staff in the cafeteria, I couldn’t choose what I was going to eat.
So after classes, I would pick a station at random, I would go up and take whatever was served by the staff behind the counter, I would take it to the table, and only then would I realize what I was going to eat. There were some unhappy surprises.
As a busy student with classes and preparing for exams and writing papers, the last thing I needed was this added frustration. But sometimes they did remember to send the menus, and when they did, I was thrilled to have choices. For example, if the menu said, “Station 3, tortellini with smoked gouda cheese,” I would know to skip stations 1 and 2 and go straight to station 3. When they remembered to send the menus, life was delicious. But they regularly forgot to send the menus.
For the first few months, I didn’t do anything about it. I live and operate in a world that’s designed for people who can see and hear, and I figured this would just be another thing I would have to deal with, like not being able to drive, or not being able to watch the latest Grammies, or people not knowing how to communicate with someone who is deaf-blind.
One of my best friends, when she first met me, didn’t know how to talk to someone who’s deaf-blind. In our international law class at Harvard, she was assigned to sit next to me, and we all had assigned seating.
And, she thought she could wave, but what if I didn’t see it, and if she speaks, would I be able to hear it? So, she did the most logical thing for a student to do, she went onto Facebook, and sent me a message saying, “Hi, Haben, I’m sitting right next to you!”
I’m happy to teach people how to communicate. I love those who embrace diversity. There’s all kinds of diversity.
Occasionally, there are individuals or organizations who are not willing to make accommodations for people with disabilities. And there’s that decision, do you just deal and let it go, or do you do something about it? And those menus, at that cafeteria, was a pivotal moment for me when I decided that I should do something, for myself, and for future blind students who came to that college, or anyone else who needed menus in alternative formats.