Skip to main content

#MobilizeWomen Disability is Opportunity for Innovation

The first Deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School, Haben Girma advocates for equal opportunities for people with disabilities. President Obama named her a White House Champion of Change. She received the Helen Keller Achievement Award, and a spot on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list. President Bill Clinton, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and Chancellor Angela Merkel have all honored Haben. Haben believes disability is an opportunity for innovation. She travels the world teaching the benefits of choosing inclusion.

Livestream recordings made possible by RBC Wealth Management - U.S.

Summary

Speaker 1: 00:05 Thank you everybody. Please join me in welcoming Haben Girma

Speaker 2: 00:18 [inaudible]

Speaker 2: 00:21 testing is the make working. Oh No, it's not working. How do we get it working? Oh, it's working now. Excellent. Good morning everyone.

Speaker 2: 00:39 I'm thrilled to be here. I'm deaf, blind. I have limited vision and hearing all throughout my life. I've been seeking ways to maximize my ability to connect with people. I can't see the people in the audience and I can't hear audience feedback. There's always an alternative way. If one way doesn't work, you can find another way that'll work and I found a solution that allows me to get audience feedback so I can connect with the audience. I'm holding up the Braille computer. On the bottom are dots. I run my fingers over the dots to feel the letters. Upfront we have interpreters who are typing on a keyboard. As they type their words pop up in Braille. When you said good morning, they typed good morning, exclamation mark. Through my talk, they're going to be giving visual and audio feedback from the audience. When people smile, laugh fall asleep. They're watching you.

Speaker 2: 01:58 Okay.

Speaker 2: 01:58 My name is. My name is Haben. The name Haben comes from Eritrea. It's a small African country. Ethiopia borders to the south and to the north is the Red Sea. My mother grew up during the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. There was a lot of violence, a lot of fear. Schools are places for students to come together and learn stories from around the world. Stories are powerful. Stories influenced the organizations we designed, the products we build and the futures we imagined for ourselves. She heard stories that America, the land of opportunity. America is the land of civil rights and the stories inspired her to take the dangerous journey. Walking from Eritrea to Sudan. It took about three weeks. She was a refugee in Sudan for about 10 months then a refugee organization helped her come to the United States several years later, older, wiser. My mother realized it's not geography that creates justice. It's people that create justice. Communities create justice.

Speaker 2: 03:13 All of us. [inaudible].

Speaker 2: 03:20 Thank you for the applause. As the daughter of refugees, a black women disabled, lots of stories say my life doesn't matter. I resist those stories. I defined what disability means to me the dominant narrative is disability creates a burden on society. I see disability as an opportunity for innovation. When you have a challenge, it's an opportunity to come up with a new solution. That new solution can help the entire community, both disabled and nondisabled. For businesses, this is a really incredible opportunity. People with disabilities are one of the largest minority groups over 1.3 billion people with disabilities around the world. That's a huge market. It's smart business to tap into this smart gift. Allot of companies only think about disability as charity, maybe leader when they have more free time, but the time to think about access is now. Imagine if you built a skyscraper, then after the project was completed, you realize, hey, we should have an elevator and you tear down part of the building to install an elevator.

Speaker 2: 04:52 That takes more time and resources than planning for access from the start. That's the, that principle applies to all aspects of accessibility and inclusion. If you're building a new program and new product, new service design with access in mind, that way your products are better. The reach a larger market and your organization grows in the long run and is more likely to come up with something innovative. I'm going to share some examples. Next slide. We have a video that shows sign language. Sign language is actually form of innovation. Deaf communities all over the world have come up with visual based languages. If you cannot hear language you can create a visual language and if you can't hear or see language you can create a tactile language. In the video, there's tactile sign language. A young man is signing, I'm holding my hands over his hands to feel his signs and they're different sign languages all over the world. The dominant one in the US is American sign language and France is French sign language across the pond. In the UK they have a completely different language and that makes no sense to me. They call it British sign language.

Speaker 2: 06:31 Back before the Internet existed, as we know it today, deaf peoples struggle to communicate long distance. Vint Cerf is one of the fathers of the Internet. He's dumped part of hearing. He worked on the earliest email protocol and email is a way for deaf people to send messages without straining to hear over the phone. Hearing people also use email. Lots of people use email. If you take a disability challenge designed for it, you're going to come up with a new product. That'll be the next big thing. Benefiting both the disabled and nondisabled community. Disability drives innovation. Next slide. Another form of communication is dance. In Salsa dancing, there are many signals that people communicate through their hands through their bodies. Our skin is one of our largest organs. We have the ability to develop tactile intelligence. A lot of people ignore this and don't pay attention to it, but there's an opportunity here and I'm really excited by the possibility of technology and haptics, the communication of information through touch and all the different things we could develop here if we tap in to our ability to gather information through touch and people with disabilities, especially the blind community, can help further innovations in this field.

Speaker 2: 08:14 When I was growing up, I was taken out of many physical education courses because people assumed I wouldn't be able to participate. Then in middle school, I went to a camp for the blind and took a dance class. There was a blind dance instructor and she showed me salsa, swing, merengue, all through touch. I can't hear the beat of the music when I'm dancing, but I can feel it through people's hands and shoulders. My disability doesn't prevent me from dancing. Communities prevent me from dancing. I've tried [inaudible]. I've tried going to a salsa club in DC and they tried to turn me away at the door saying service dogs are not allowed. That's really frustrating. My guide dog sleeping on stage is very, we'll behaved.

Speaker 2: 09:23 So

Speaker 2: 09:24 disability is not the barrier. It's society that puts up barriers and it's up to all of us to work together to remove those barriers. The default is no access. To create access, you need to take affirmative steps to remove barriers and this happens in all kinds of different fields. One of my favorite examples is from my high school teacher. She approached me one day and asked, would you like to try surfing? And I thought to myself, how can a blind person surf? I told her, sure, let's give it a try. So she introduced me to a program that does tandem surfing. Next slide. In this video, I'm tandem surfing with an instructor and he is on the board on the back of the board. I'm on the front of the board and the instructor help steer around other surfers in sharks. I loved the experience, so I took it to the next level and I asked around for surfing schools and they all told me we've never heard of the deaf blind surfer. Then I found one school and that said, we've never heard of a deaf blind surfer, but let's try. Let's figure it out. So we had a lesson next slide and humorous or things side by side. Each of us on our own

Speaker 2: 11:11 [inaudible]

Speaker 2: 11:12 Inclusion is possible. You just need to be creative and thoughtful. Next slide. Then I tried surfing in Hawaii and in this video my dog watches anxiously as I ride a wave by myself for the first time. And the instructors found that they learned more about surfing when they tried engaging with it from a tactical perspective. Our understanding of our world deepens when we engage with the disability perspective. Next slide. In 2010 I entered Harvard Law School. They told me we've never had a deaf blind student before and I told them I've never been to Harvard law school before.

Speaker 2: 12:09 [inaudible]

Speaker 2: 12:09 we didn't know what the challenges would be, we didn't know what the solutions would be engaged in an interactive process to find those solutions. Don't be afraid of the unknown. The unknown is an opportunity to learn, grow and innovate new solutions. I graduated in 2013 and now my work as a disability rights advocate advocating for greater inclusion. Next slide. This is our final slide. Again, my name is Haben. The name Haben means pride in Tigrinya the language of Eritrea. Take pride in your differences. Don't be ashamed on those things you struggle with because they give us strength and I have a book that outlines my story that's coming out in August and you can support by preordering the book.

Speaker 2: 13:15 [inaudible]

Speaker 2: 13:18 We have a break now after this. I'm going to be the front row and if people have any questions or want to say hi, please come and do so. Thank you everyone.

Speaker 1: 13:38 Thank you so much. Haben.


{{playbook.title}}

Continue learning with this Ellevate Playbook:

Ellevate Network is a community of professional women committed to helping each other succeed. We use the power of community to help you take the next step in your career.

By sharing your email you agree to our Terms of Use & Privacy Policy

By sharing your email you agree to our Terms of Use & Privacy Policy

🎊

Thank you! Career advice and opportunities are on the way to your inbox.

Add your zip code, so we can invite you to our local events!