Disability Driving Innovation

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Accessibility and inclusion advocate Haben Girma (left) sits next to blog author Rhea Yates. 


Haben Girma confesses to being a little bored by stories featuring people with disabilities who overcome challenges. Haben, who is Deaf-Blind, is much more interested in exploring stories about how people with disabilities drive innovation and growth. I had the chance to hear Haben give a keynote presentation at the American Alliance of Museums 2017 Annual Meeting and MuseumExpo in St. Louis, MO, where she challenged museum professionals to provide a visitor experience that is accessible to people of all abilities.


Disability is not a barrier

As a Deaf-Blind person, Haben has encountered barriers throughout her life. The key message of her presentation, though, is that barriers are not caused by disability. Instead, barriers are put in place by people. 

Haben drew upon her own life experiences to illustrate that being inclusive is a choice. For months, Haben tolerated her college cafeteria’s refusal to provide menus in a format she could read and understand. She described how she would stand in a food station line for 20 minutes only to discover that she didn’t want whatever food was placed on her tray. Then, she would have to start all over, choosing a different food station line and hoping for the best.

“As a blind person, I couldn’t read the menu,” Haben said. “My disability wasn’t the problem. Disability’s never the problem. It was the cafeteria’s choice to provide the menu only in print.”

Eventually, Haben grew tired of daily meal-time surprises and insisted that the cafeteria take steps to communicate in other ways, such as through Braille or through screen-reader technology.

“I went back and explained, ‘I’m not asking for a favour,’” she said. “After I framed the issue as a civil rights issue, they started taking me more seriously. After that, they started providing me with the menu in accessible formats.” Haben’s victory soon had an impact on others. The following year, a blind student began attending the college and found that he didn’t have to fight for access.


Disability drives innovation

With very limited vision and hearing, Haben communicates using multiple alternative technologies, such as reaching out to touch someone using American Sign Language and following the movements of the person’s hands as they sign, or digital Braille technology. At the conference, delegates at the American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting and MuseumExpo who wished to speak to Haben could type a message on her Apple wireless keyboard, and she would receive it by touching a digital Braille display. Before we sat down to talk, Haben explained that my typing didn’t have to be perfect – she would be able to sort out any typos when they came through on her display. I found conversation flowed easily using this method.

Throughout history, solutions that increase inclusivity have benefited the entire community. The first commercial email system connected to the Internet was created by a person with a hearing impairment. Vint Cerf, considered one of the fathers of the Internet, wanted to create a solution that would allow for improved communication between the Deaf community and hearing people. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vint_Cerf)

Haben believes that technology can facilitate connections – as long as both parties are willing and interested in practicing inclusion. In 2013, Haben became the first Deaf-Blind graduate from Harvard Law School. She and the school worked together to overcome accessibility barriers as they arose.


Communication through touch

Many of Haben’s messages from that keynote address will stick with me, but I will particularly remember one story that demonstrates how touch is a powerful form of communication. Haben told a story about how she had heard about the Eiffel Tower in Paris many times, but it wasn’t until she was 22 that she really understood what it looked like. She visited a museum in Madrid, which had a tactile sculpture of the Eiffel Tower. “I learned what the Eiffel Tower looks like for the first time,” she said. “Not until I visited that museum in Madrid did I actually feel what it feels like.” 

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights includes tactile, 3D images in its current crowd-sourced photography exhibition, called Points of View. Visitors with vision impairments have shared with Museum staff how moving it is to be able to experience visual arts in this way.. Haben’s keynote address reaffirms the importance of offering multiple methods of communication, and choosing to be inclusive.   

Ultimately, Haben’s message is to celebrate disability as a part of human diversity, and to look at disability as an opportunity for innovation and growth. In Haben’s view, it’s our choice to either accept barriers, or choose to remove them.

Watch Haben’s speech to the American Alliance of Museums https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3o_SoareHuQ

Read Haben’s blog “People with Disabilities Drive Innovation” https://habengirma.com/2017/09/13/people-with-disabilities-drive-innovation/