Haben Girma: Innovation, Accessibility, and Inclusion

Haben Girma: Innovation, Accessibility, and Inclusion

Haben Girma speaks to the community about designing for disability challenges as a catalyst for innovation.

Haben Girma: Innovation, Accessibility, and Inclusion

Before a captivated audience in Caswell Hall, Haben Girma stood behind a wooden podium emblazoned with the Marlborough School logo to address the Marlborough community during an All-School Meeting (ASM). Ms. Girma, the first Deafblind graduate of Harvard Law School, delivered a powerful address that emphasized the importance of designing for disability challenges to spark innovation; her unwavering dedication to breaking down the barriers of ableism left a profound impact on our community.

The ASM began with a heartfelt introduction by All-School President Cassidey F. ’29 who expressed her own commitment to fostering an inclusive environment. Cassidey shared, “Ms. Girma's unwavering belief that disability is an opportunity for innovation fuels her mission to educate organizations, including our own school, on the vital importance of embracing people’s differences.” Cassidey also highlighted Ms. Girma's trailblazing journey, emphasizing her resilience and achievements as a Deafblind woman. 

Ms. Girma began her talk by explaining how she would maintain a connection with the audience. At the podium, she rested her hands on a Braille computer linked to an external keyboard controlled by her interpreter in the front row. With a touch of humor, she introduced Gordon, her interpreter, who would describe the audience’s reactions during her presentation. She quipped, “He will type and let me know when people smile, laugh,” and playfully added, “or fall asleep. Be careful, he’s watching!” With this window into her sense of humor and dedication to connecting with the community to share her message, Ms. Girma continued. She shared childhood experiences in which she faced challenges accessing spaces designed for those with sight and hearing. She said, “The places around me—the schools, the libraries—were designed for people that could see and hear, and the burden was put on me to do the work, to try to make these spaces more accessible for myself.”

Through her work to gain access to education and other opportunities, Ms. Girma realized that Deafblindness is not her main obstacle; it is ableism that poses the most significant barrier. She urged the audience to recognize and fight both intentional and unintentional ableism, which is deeply embedded in our culture. She said, “Ableism is the beliefs and practices that treat disabled people as inferior to non-disabled people. It is my hope that more people will begin to notice these barriers and do the work to fight ableism.” 

This fight has already begun in many aspects of modern society. Known as the “curb cut effect,” Ms. Girma offered examples that illustrated how designing for disability challenges can lead to innovations benefiting both disabled and non-disabled individuals. Its name comes from a movement in the 1960s and 1970s in Berkeley, CA where wheelchair users advocated for curbs to have a ramp into and off of streets. While resistant initially, the city eventually implemented this change. Now, curb cuts are prevalent across the United States and the globe. Not only does it enable wheelchair users to more easily navigate city streets, it also provides parents with strollers a helpful solution, and, Ms. Girma notes, “In 2024, even your delivery robots rely on the curb cuts to get you your food.” Even the first typewriter iteration was designed by one blind and one sighted person who wished to be able to write love letters back and forth before the invention of Braille. There are countless examples of remarkable innovations sparked by the need to overcome ableism biases.

Ms. Girma concluded her talk by sharing personal challenges she faced during her time at Harvard Law School. She highlighted the persistent ableism she encountered, taking time to also celebrate the strides the Harvard Law community made in tearing down barriers to allow her to have the same education as her peers. “Our whole community still has more work to do to make our world more accessible,” Ms. Girma shared. “So keep asking yourself and your community members: Are we designing this class, this website, this app, this building to be accessible to everyone, including disabled people? Keep asking questions.” 

Aligned with the ideas of being thoughtful and inquisitive to ensure inclusivity, Ms. Girma shared her hope that her story would inspire others to be agents of change. “Often non-disabled people call disabled people inspiring,” she said, “and a lot of disabled people don't like that word because it is a mask for pity.” Urging positive change over piteous sentiment, Ms. Girma stated, “If you use the word inspiring, tie it to action and say ‘I'm inspired to make this change to increase accessibility.’”

Haben Girma's visit to Marlborough left a lasting impact, inspiring students and faculty alike to be active in their approach to accessibility and inclusion. Her powerful message about designing solutions for disability challenges as a catalyst for innovation resonated deeply with our community as we actively participate in the ongoing journey towards a more inclusive world.

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In the image that accompanies this article, Haben Girma stands at a wooden podium. She addresses the Marlborough community wearing a sky blue and white tweed dress with pearl buttons. 

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