As the first deafblind person to graduate Harvard, Haben Girma understands limitations for people with disabilities in the legal profession. In her TEDx talk in Baltimore, Haben Girma asked a question that a lot of people with disabilities ask themselves: do I accept the limitations and challenges set before me or do I do something about it? As well as being the first deafblind person to graduate from Harvard, Haben actively works to increase accessibility for disabled people in the legal profession. In this On the Road report from the 2017 Clio Cloud conference, host Rian Gauvreau talks to Haben Girma about how to increase accessibility in websites, applications, education, and law firms. She discusses how technology innovations are helping those with disabilities and her most frustrating and rewarding experiences as an advocate and lawyer.
The first deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School, Haben Girma advocates for equal opportunities for people with disabilities.
On the Road with Legal Talk Network
Clio Cloud 2017: Increasing Accessibility for Disabled Lawyers with Haben Girma
Rian Gauvreau: Hello from the Clio Cloud Conference 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. I am Rian Gauvreau.
Haben Girma: This is Haben Girma.
Rian Gauvreau: And we are On the Road with the Legal Talk Network.
Rian Gauvreau: And we are back. Thank you so much for joining us On the Road. It’s a pleasure to be here in the Big Easy. Today we are talking about Haben Girma. So Haben, can you tell us about yourself. Tell us where you work and what you do.
Haben Girma: I am from San Francisco and I work as a disability rights lawyer, public speaker and consultant. I teach organizations how to make their services and products accessible. There are 1.3 billion people with disabilities worldwide, so companies that make their services accessible reach more people.
There are also legal reasons to make services accessible, such as complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Rian Gauvreau: Great. And can you maybe tell us a bit about what your presentation covered today?
Haben Girma: Today my presentation covered accessibility and various benefits to companies for making services accessible, reaching more people is one; driving innovation is another. Companies that prioritize access end up developing new products, new designs that help a ton of people, so accessibility benefits people with disabilities, but also benefits the company by driving innovation and helping the company develop new products.
Rian Gauvreau: That’s great. And can you maybe talk a little bit about how you think the legal industry can be bringing accessibility to their services?
Haben Girma: A lot of law firms have services online, like websites or resources or media companies that share legal news; it’s helpful to make these things accessible so that stories reach more people.
For example, having transcripts for podcasts, or videos having transcripts, those are some of the ways that legal stories, legal news can be more accessible and reach more people. Increasing hiring of lawyers with disabilities is also really important. Diverse teams are stronger and find more solutions to problems.
Rian Gauvreau: And for the benefit of the audience, I think I have personally been fascinated at how we have been communicating. For those that are listening, they may not realize that you are deaf-blind and so that presents a unique opportunity for us to find a new way to communicate.
So you are traveling with your assistant and she is acting as an interpreter for our conversation and that’s being relayed to you through a special communication device, and I was wondering whether you can maybe tell us about that.
Haben Girma: I am using a device called a BrailleNote. It’s a Braille computer. Pins popup to form Braille letters. I run my fingers across the pins and that’s how I figure out what people are saying. People can either type themselves and what they type gets converted to Braille or an interpreter can type on the keyboard and type what people are seeing.
Keyboards are familiar to people. Most people know how to type; they might type slow; they might have typos, but they still know the basics of typing, so it’s a way for me to connect with a lot of people.
Rian Gauvreau: And have you always had that device?
Haben Girma: I have had this device since 2010. Before that I have had other devices, but they weren’t as nice, like they didn’t have Bluetooth for example. So technology has created more opportunities.
I want to point out that this is a special device. When I talk about accessibility, usually I am talking about mainstream products, products that everyone uses, adding accessibility features. Separate is never equal. I am not a fan of separate websites for blind people or separate apps for accessibility. We should have mainstream apps and websites that everyone can use.
Rian Gauvreau: And given that we are at the Clio Cloud Conference and we have been talking a lot about the innovations happening at Clio, maybe you could tell me a bit about what you feel is really important for, especially like software developers or application developers in terms of how they are making their software accessible and the types of things that you would like to see Clio do in order to make our application more accessible?
Haben Girma: There are guidelines to help web developers and app developers make their services more accessible. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines is helpful to web developers. Apple’s Accessibility Guidelines for iOS, Android Accessibility Guidelines are helpful for mobile apps. So these guidelines will help design for screen reader compatibility.
Screen readers are software applications that convert graphical information to speech or digital Braille. Some individuals use assistive devices. Maybe they have a mobility disability and they can’t use a keyboard or mouse, they will instead use a special device, like Switch Control. So accessibility features help reach more people so that individuals who uses assistive devices or screen readers or need captions on videos can access these apps. Those are some of the things app developers should think about.
Rian Gauvreau: And what do you think has been the most important innovation so far as accessibility is concerned in the last few years, and maybe what do you think the most interesting new innovation in accessibility is today?
Haben Girma: One of the most interesting innovations is Haptics, so the concept of taking information and presenting it in a tactile format. The Apple Watch communicates information through Haptics, so now we have the opportunity to share information and develop languages, forms of communication through touch, through Haptics.
Rian Gauvreau: That’s great. An interesting question that somebody posed today that I thought was maybe worth repeating was, what do you find most frustrating as somebody who depends on accessibility features when you are using applications or software?
Haben Girma: Sometimes I find an app that’s accessible, I fall in love with it, I start using it all the time, then the app developers release an update, and the update breaks accessibility, that’s incredibly frustrating. So it’s important to maintain accessibility as people update their apps.
Rian Gauvreau: As somebody who travels the world speaking on the topic of accessibility, I am sure you have been party to affecting some pretty transformative change, is there anything you are especially proud of?
Haben Girma: One of the most rewarding experiences for me was working on a case, National Federation of the Blind v. Scribd and helping blind readers gain more access to books, to the library, online library called Scribd. Reading is a huge part of my life and I think everyone should have access to reading.
That case also reminds people that the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to online services, so digital companies need to be aware of the ADA.
Rian Gauvreau: And maybe last question, given that we are in New Orleans here at the Clio Cloud Conference, what’s been the highlight of the conference or New Orleans for you?
Haben Girma: I am a huge fan of spicy food and the food in New Orleans has been very flavorable, so it’s been fun being here and trying out different foods and meeting local people to New Orleans who have been telling me about the culture here.
Rian Gauvreau: Well, that’s great. Haben, thanks so much for spending some time with us today. We have reached the end of the road for today’s episode.
Haben Girma: You are very welcome. Thanks for having me here Rian.
Rian Gauvreau: I also want to thank you for being here at the Clio Cloud Conference, it’s been a real privilege and your talk today was certainly informing, but also inspirational, and I think the Clio team and everybody here who was privileged to be in attendance was really thrilled with what you presented, so thank you.
Haben Girma: I love hearing that my talks inspire people and I always ask, what have you been inspired to do, take that inspiration and let it spur actions, spur changes, so think about all these new ideas and transform them into actions.
Rian Gauvreau: Absolutely. And I think your talk certainly informs how our product is going to be evolving to further improve accessibility for our users.
So to close out, I just want to thank the listeners for tuning in. If you liked what you heard today, please rate us on Apple Podcast and we will see you next time on another episode of On the Road with Legal Talk Network.
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