Haben Girma on Public Service Lawyers as Pioneering Advocates (Full Transcript

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.

So I explained to the manager at the cafeteria that I paid to eat at the cafeteria and like all the other students, I deserved access to the menus so I could take advantage of these services.

The manager told me, they’re very busy, he’s doing me a big favor, and I needed to stop complaining and be more appreciative. I don’t know about you, but if there’s chocolate cake at station 4 and no one tells me, I’m not feeling appreciative.

So, after several incidences of missed chocolate cake, I had enough, I tried something new. The Americans with Disabilities Act, ADA, was passed in 1990. Congress passed this law to protect the rights of people with disabilities. The law symbolizes a change from treating people as second class citizens.

The ADA states that businesses like the cafeteria are required to make reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities. Emailing a menu is a reasonable accommodation.

I told the manager that if he would not send emails consistently, I would sue.

To tell you the truth, I had no idea how I would do that.

I was 19, how would I afford a lawyer? I was nervous that lawyers and judges wouldn’t understand. Besides, it’s just a menu, right? Lewis & Clark did an excellent job of giving me my course materials, my textbooks, my exams in braille. Students all across the country – blind students in other colleges, struggle to get basic access to books, even today. So who was I to complain?

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My mother grew up in Eritrea, amidst a 30-year war with Ethiopia. When she was 18, she trekked for two weeks from Eritrea to Sudan, then from Sudan, through a refugee organization, made it to America for a better life. So who was I to complain?

I was worried that someone would think that access to a menu was too trivial, that it was a privilege, and not a right. But at the same time, I was also excited about the possibility of making the college a better place, even if it was just one other blind student that came after me. I had a vision of helping other people, I had a vision of joining the civil rights movement, maybe even becoming a lawyer. I had a vision of eating that chocolate cake.

After teaching the cafeteria staff about the ADA, everything changed. They agreed to provide menus consistently, and they did. Learning about the ADA changed their attitude. They originally thought that providing access for students with disabilities was a favor, something they could do in their free time, when they were in the right mood.

Learning about the ADA changed the culture in the cafeteria. The ADA creates legal obligations to treat people as equals. Schools nowadays admit students with disabilities, and that’s great. Access goes beyond the schoolhouse gate. We need access to online learning tools, to math and science courses, to study-abroad programs, and yes, even dessert menus.

My experiences as a pioneer inspired me to become a lawyer. I now work in Berkeley, at Disability Rights Advocates, a national nonprofit organization. One stereotype of lawyer is that they’re just after your money. DRA does not charge clients. Civil rights need to be accessible.

One tool used by lawyers, including at DRA, is the class action litigation. Class actions are when a group of people come together to sue someone who’s doing something wrong. It’s a way to help improve access to important things like education, or employment, and healthcare, at a national level.

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A few years ago, several students at UC Berkeley came to DRA with concerns. Students with print reading disabilities need access to course materials in alternative formats. Like braille, large print, audio, digital. The university was taking so long to provide these materials, that students were at risk of failing their courses.

Through the help of lawyers at DRA, students were able to reach an agreement with the university. The university now has new policies that are turning Berkeley into a model for other schools. Lawyers first and foremost educate their communities. I know that if people learn how to help, they will. So if you’re a programmer, a web engineer, learn about the web accessibility guidelines. If you’re an architect, learn about the ADA guidelines for new constructions. We can choose to make our communities accessible. It’s in our power to provide access for everyone.

Those individuals who’ve had to move forward as pioneers are particularly well-positioned to help their communities, whether as lawyers, or as other advocates.

My name is Haben Girma, and I hope I’ve given you a new vision of lawyers.

Thank you.


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