Activist/Lawyer Haben Girma Speaks Out on COVID-19 and the Disability Community

Earlier this week, Haben Girma, a human rights lawyer focused on disability justice and the first Deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School, spoke with Bloomberg Equality’s Scarlet Fu about how the disability community is managing the COVID-19 pandemic. “A lot of disabled people have compromised immune systems . . . so when companies create [the option to work from home,] it makes a huge difference,” Girma said. And then she spoke to the biggest and perhaps least well-publicized issue for the disability community:

“There are still a lot of people in the medical field who believe disabled lives are not worth living,” she said. “We’ve seen this coming up in the pandemic where disabled people are being put last in line for medical care, or doctors are choosing not to provide medical care because they assume — wrongly, based on ableism — that disabled lives aren’t valuable. Our lives are valuable. Ableism is the widespread assumption that disabled people are inferior. We have talents, we have skills. When organizations do the work of removing ableism, they can benefit from the talents of over one billion disabled people around the world.” 

The child of Eritrean refugees, Girma learned Braille in elementary school in Oakland, California. With the help of teachers for the blind and her general education teachers in high school, she attended Lewis & Clark College before going on to Harvard Law. 

In her 2014 TEDx Talk, she describes how her inability to access the cafeteria’s menu as an undergraduate led her to pursue a career as a lawyer, in part to help increase access to books and other digital resources for people with disabilities. In 2015, she met with President Barack Obama to highlight the importance of accessible technology on the 25th anniversary of the ADA. 

A woman in a coral dress stands on a red carpet on a stage with the words "TEDx Baltimore" in the background

Girma also developed her own communication system called assisttypes, a wireless keyboard that connects to a device that translates typing into Braille. (Girma then responds verbally.) In 2016, she stopped litigating to focus on her disability rights advocacy, helping organizations become accessible and fighting for universally accessible technology. 

Girma spoke with Bloomberg Equality about the importance of accessibility during the pandemic as well. “I’m grateful to . . .  companies who are choosing to use accessible websites and digital services — Zoom is accessible and blind people can use it independently,” she said. She noted that organizations need to improve their use of captioning, though. “We want to see more organizations using captions. You need to hire someone to provide captions so that deaf individuals can participate in the Zoom call or conference. Some will need sign language interpreters, so you bring an interpreter onto the call so that the deaf person who relies on sign language can also converse and follow along with what’s happening on the call.” 

When Fu asked whether there have been any positive effects as a result of the pandemic that should be carried forward, Girma responded that being able to work from home has been hugely beneficial: “A lot of disabled people were asking for the flexibility to be able to work from home, and for a long time organizations would say no, it can’t be done; well, now we’ve seen that it absolutely can be done. When the pandemic is over, I hope many organizations will continue to offer this flexibility to work from home and attend conferences remotely.” 

Learn more about Girma’s accomplishments and important work by reading her bestselling memoir and following her on Instagram and Twitter

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