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Episode 185: Haben Girma – The First Deafblind Harvard Law Graduate, Champion Of Change

 

Episode 185: Haben Girma – The First Deafblind Harvard Law Graduate, Champion Of Change

An internationally acclaimed accessibility leader, Haben Girma has earned recognition as a White House “Champion of Change”, Forbes 30 under 30 leader, and BBC Women of Africa Hero. The first Deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School, Haben champions equal access to information for people with disabilities. She has been honored by President Barack Obama, President Bill Clinton, and many others.

People with disabilities represent the largest minority group, numbering one billion worldwide. Reaching a group of this scale creates value for everyone. Organizations that prioritize accessibility benefit by gaining access to a much larger user base, improving the experience for both disabled and non-disabled users, and facilitating further innovation.

Watch Haben teach 4,000 developers the connection between Disability & Innovation at Apple’s 2016 Worldwide Developers Conference.

Haben has been featured extensively in media round the world, including the BBC, CBS, Forbes, the Washington Post, MTV, NPR, and many more.

Haben grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area where she currently lives. She holds a B.A. in Sociology/Anthropology from Lewis & Clark College and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. In addition to her accessibility work, she enjoys salsa dancing, surfing, and traveling the world.

Episode 185: Haben Girma – The First Deafblind Harvard Law Graduate, Champion Of Change

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The Learning Leader Show

“Excellent leaders are honest about their strengths and weaknesses.”

In This Episode, You Will Learn:

  • Common themes to sustain excellence:
    • Honest about strengths and weaknesses
    • Great problem solvers
    • High level of self-awareness
  • Haben is Deafblind – she understands her strengths and weaknesses very well
  • Her TED Talk – Advocating for others — How and why she champions equal access to information for people with disabilities
  • Communicating and hugging President Barack Obama
  • How she communicates — The use of braille.  For our talk on this podcast, she had an interpreter listen to what I said and then type it out for her to read in braille
  • What are the best ways to communicate with people who are deaf — Haben helps me understand
  • Why you should never tell her that her story inspires you
  • How chocolate cake played a role in her becoming an advocacy attorney
  • What advice given to others who want to go into advocacy? Start with yourself. Maybe there is a gender bias, religious, or racial. Build up from there…
  • Haben describes how she experiences movies
  • The best piece of advice she’s received: Don’t insist on doing something by yourself. Ask for help. Work smart. Sometimes it’s better to be helped by others
  • What she hopes people learn from her speeches? That she continually adds value to others
  • Haben’s thoughts on Helen Keller – She’s brilliant
  • Haben’s brother is also Deafblind — He works in technology
  • How she actively makes a choice to ignore fear
  • Why Uber denied her a ride 3 times and what happened
  • Her Goals: Change our culture — Disability adds value… Trainings & Workshops

Positive Message To Send – We respect and admire disabled leaders, just as we respect and admire our non-disabled leaders.

Continue Learning:

You may also like these episodes:

Episode 078: Kat Cole – From Hooters Waitress To President of Cinnabon

Episode 071: Nate Boyer – Green Beret, Texas Football, The NFL

Episode 179: How To Sustain Excellence – The Best Answers From 178 Questions

Episode 107: Simon Sinek – Leadership: It Starts With Why

Did you enjoy the podcast?

If you enjoyed hearing Haben Girma on the show, please don’t hesitate to send me a note on Twitter or email me.

Episode edited by the great J Scott Donnell

The Learning Leader Show is supported by FreshBooksFreshBooks is offering a 30 day, unrestricted free trial to my listeners. To claim it, just go to FreshBooks.com/Learning and enter LEARNING LEADER in the “How Did You Hear About Us?” section.

FULL Transcription Of This Conversation As Follows:

Haben:             What we want to do is start thinking in terms of “We,” in terms of everyone being included and equal in value.  So, I try to move away from hierarchies, I try to move away from the word “inspiration,” which tends to carry pity.  Sometimes, it’s used as a disguise for saying, “Thank goodness I don’t have your problems.  I’m going to feel more grateful for my life because I don’t have problems as horrible as yours.”  That perpetuates negative hierarchies.

Intro:                Are leaders born, or are they made?  Our host, Ryan Hawk, believes that leaders can be made through determined, focused work on learning the art and science behind the makeup or other successful leaders.  Now it’s time to inhale knowledge and exhale success.  You’re listening to The Learning Leader Show with Ryan Hawk.

Ryan:               Pumped for our new sponsor this year.  It’s FreshBooks.  The working world has changed.  With the growth of the internet, there’s never been more opportunities for the self-employed.  To meet this end, FreshBooks is excited to announce the launch of an all-new version of their Cloud accounting software.  It’s been redesigned from the ground up and custom built for exactly the way you work.  Get ready for the simplest way to be more productive, organized, and most importantly, get paid quickly.  The all-new FreshBooks is not only easy to use; it’s also packed full of powerful features like create and send professional looking invoices in less than 30 seconds, set up online payments with just a couple of clicks and get paid up to four days faster, and see when your client has seen your invoice and put an end to the guessing games.  FreshBooks is offering a 30-day unrestricted free trial to my listeners.  To claim it, just go to FreshBooks.com/Learning and enter “Learning Leader” in the “How did you hear about us?” section.

Hey and welcome to The Learning Leader Show.  I am Ryan Hawk.  Thanks so much for being here.  My featured leader tonight is the highly intelligent Haben Girma.  She’s an internationally acclaimed accessibility leader.  She’s earned recognition as a White House Champion of Change, Forbes 30 Under 30 Leader, and BBC Women of Africa Hero.  She is the first deaf/blind person to graduate from Harvard Law School.  She campions equal access to information for people with disabilities.  Haben has been honored by President Barack Obama, President Bill Clinton, and many others.  A few of the topics we got into: The harmful messages we should avoid when discussing people with disabilities.  And Haben shares a story about her time with President Obama and hugging him.  Really funny and great part of our talk.  And then how she prepared and delivered a world-class TED Talk.  Ladies and gentlemen, you’re going to love this one with Haben Girma.

Okay, Haben.  Thanks so much for being here.  Excited to have this conversation with you on The Learning Leader Show.  First question is around leaders who have sustained excellence over an extended period of time.  I’m curious, from your perspective, whether speaking about yourself and others you’ve spent time around, what are some of the common themes or characteristics of those leaders who always seems to sustain excellence?

Haben:             Excellent leaders are honest about their skills and weaknesses.  I’m deaf/blind.  My vision and hearing is terrible.  So, I’m very intentional about not putting myself in spaces that would require things I’m not great at, such as relying on vision and audio.  My skills are in problem-solving, analytical reasoning, communication, and I put myself in environments where those skills are valued.  So, one of the really important things for leaders is to recognize what their skills are, what their weaknesses are, and being honest and working with that.

Ryan:               So, it seems like the best that you’ve been around, and yourself, have a high level of self-awareness.  Is that right?

Haben:             Exactly.  Self-awareness is key to success.

Ryan:               Okay.  Well, I need to tell you a story, Haben.  So, I was watching your TED Talk with my daughter, Ella, and we absolutely loved the story, the way that you mixed in humor, how you advocate for others.  Can you share a little bit about your story and how you got along this path?

Haben:             I haven’t always been an advocate.  It’s a process to learn to advocate for yourself, and when I was in college, the college cafeteria used a menu system that wasn’t accessible to blind students.  The menu was in print, and blind students can’t read print.  So, I asked the cafeteria, “Would you provide the menu in accessible formats?  Brail, digital?”  And they told me they were too busy, couldn’t really deal with the students with disabilities.  And I was frustrated and I didn’t know what to do because no one’s born knowing how to advocate for themselves.  You have to learn over time.  And I spent a few months trying to think about what I could do, and finally, I realized this is a civil rights issues.  The law requires that establishments like the cafeteria make their services accessible to people with disabilities.  And I came back and explained, “This isn’t about charity or your free time; this is a civil rights issue.  You’re required by the Americans with Disabilities Act to make reasonable accommodations, and if you don’t make the menu accessible, I’m going to take legal action.”

And when I framed it like that, everything changed.  They started to ensure the menus were accessible.  I finally had choices about what to eat.  Back then, I was vegetarian, so it was really frustrating to wait in line and then discover they were just serving burgers at that station.  I needed food choices, and when they made the menu accessible, I finally had choices.  And making that change at the cafeteria made me realize that not only can I advocate for myself, but I can advocate for others as well.  So, I decided to go to law school after college and advocate for others so that our whole community can become more inclusive.

Ryan:               And so, you’re the first deaf/blind Harvard Law graduate.  Is that correct?

Haben:             That’s right!

Ryan:               Yeah, I think, looking through everything you’ve done, you also were a ballroom dancer.  Is that also correct?

Haben:             Yes, you’re right.  You definitely did your homework, Ryan.

Ryan:               Well, you also mentioned the way that dancers can speak without actually saying words, and I found that to be an interesting and thought-provoking message.  Can you share more about how certain people are able to speak in other ways?

Haben:             So, for communication, I use a brail display and standard QWERTY keyboard, and people type what they’re saying and I read in digital brail.  Right now, it’s you speaking.  An interpreter is typing on a keyboard and I’m reading on a digital brail display and then responding by voice.  This is one form of communication.  Another form of communication is sign language.  If someone knows sign language, we can sign.  I’ll put my hand over their hand and feel their signs.  On the dancefloor, salsa, swing, waltz, those are also forms of sign language.  So, when someone knows salsa, I can communicate with them in salsa.  I know all the signals.  I’m able to read their body through their hands, their shoulders.  So, our bodies communicate in many different ways: through dance, through signs, through typing.  Human potential is limitless.

Ryan:               You also went to the White House and visited with President Obama and I watched the video earlier today of him.  I believe his quote was, “I couldn’t type a hug,” and then there’s this great moment of you and him hugging each other.  What was that like in the White House with President Obama?

Haben:             President Obama’s fantastic.  Let me talk a little bit about that hug.  Some people are very awkward about hugs, and they don’t know how to signal that they want a hug.  Sometimes it’s with eye contact, but eye contact is not accessible to me.  President Obama was very intuitive.  He signaled with his hand, “May we hug?”  It was very clear.  Some people are more communicative tactually than others, so it was beautiful to see that, and he also communicated using the keyboard.  I love when people can switch between communication styles: voice, sign, text.  It’s really helpful to be flexible and engage with people in whatever way works best for them.

Ryan:               You happen to have a very beautiful voice, and I read that you’ve got a lot of training.  How have you developed?  I know some people listening right now probably are saying that they’ve potentially heard other people who are deaf speak and it isn’t always as clear as your voice.  How have you trained yourself to be such a great speaker?  I mean you got up on a TED stage, you’ve been at the White House, all of these great places.

Haben:             Most people with hearing loss have a different type of hearing loss.  They have high frequency hearing loss, which is common when you get older.  My hearing loss is the opposite of that.  I have a little bit of high frequency, but little to no low frequency hearing.  And because of that, I’m able to hear consonants and speech intelligence is in the consonants.  But if you miss out the consonants, you’re more likely to have a deaf accent.  So, part of the reason I speak this way is because of the unique type of hearing loss I have.  I’ve also taken many theater classes, voice classes to build up my ability to communicate with people.  Communication is important.  That’s how we teach, that’s how we learn.  So, I’ve been doing everything I can to develop those skills.

Ryan:               Can you share some of the potential harmful messages that people should avoid when speaking with or speaking about somebody with a disability?

Haben:             There are common themes that are harmful when talking about disability.  One theme is the idea that people with disabilities exist for non-disabled people to feel grateful for the abilities they have.  But that’s harmful because it creates hierarchies of “us” versus “them.”  What we want to do is start thinking in terms of “We,” in terms of everyone being included and equal in value.  So, I try to move away from hierarchies, I try to move away from the word “inspiration,” which tends to carry pity.  Sometimes, it’s used as a disguise for saying, “Thank goodness I don’t have your problems.  I’m going to feel more grateful for my life because I don’t have problems as horrible as yours.”  That perpetuates negative hierarchies.  So, I try to move away from that and, instead, focus on every human has value.  We all deserve equal access.

Ryan:               How about back in the cafeteria?  There were some headlines written about you saying that you owe your activism in part to chocolate cake.  Can you dive deeper into that story?

Haben:             At the cafeteria, before they made the changes, I had no idea what they were serving.  I would go to a station at random, get food, go to a table, sit down, taste the food, and only then would I know what they were serving.  There were sometimes unhappy surprises.  And sometimes they would be serving chocolate cake and I wouldn’t know, and later in the day, one of my friends would be like, “Oh, Haben, did you try the chocolate cake today?  It was really good.”  And I would say, “Wait.  There was chocolate cake and no one told me?!  That’s not fair.”  And that was one of the reasons I wanted the menu to be accessible, so I would know when they were serving chocolate cake or tortellini or some of my other favorite foods.  Choices are important.  We all deserve to have choices, especially when we’re paying to eat there.

Ryan:               What is your advice to others and people who aspire to go into advocacy?

Haben:             First, start with you.  Get really strong advocating for your own needs and interests.  Even if you are non-disabled, you still face challenges.  Maybe it’s gender discrimination, maybe it’s religious, maybe racial.  There are many different forms of obstacles and challenges.  So, build up your ability to advocate for yourself and then use those skills to advocate for the greater community.

Ryan:               I hear you’re a fan of movies.  How do you experience movies?

Haben:             You know, I’m not a huge fan of movies because movies are very visual and auditory, things I’m not very good at.  But, when a movie is culturally significant, I want to be able to talk about culture.  I’ll read the screenplay of the movie, read the dialogue, read visual descriptions, and then I can hang out with friends and talk about why this movie was great, why this movie was not so great.  So, I don’t watch movies very often, but if I do, it’s through the screenplay.

Ryan:               What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received and who was it from?

Haben:             When I was in law school, a friend saw me struggling, and I was struggling because I was insisting on doing something on my own rather than getting assistance in how to research a particular topic.  I wanted to spend the extra five hours, six hours to figure it out on my own rather than just asking the research librarian.  And my friend told me, “One piece of advice is to work smart rather than work hard.”  Sometimes it’s more effective to ask someone else for assistance rather than taking the extra time to do it on your own.  Not always, but it’s good to be flexible and recognize when it would benefit you to ask someone else for help.

Ryan:               Absolutely agree.  When you get up onstage to speak, what are the primary messages you are trying to convey?  What do you hope the people in the audience leave thinking?

Haben:             I want people to recognize that disability is an asset.  Being different is an asset.  I spent my life trying to figure out things, and because of that, I’ve developed really strong problem-solving skills.  All the teams I work with benefit from my strong problem-solving skills.  So, we want people with disabilities within our teams, our communities, our workforce because they add value.  A lot of the technology and changes we’ve seen throughout our history have been inspired by disability, everything from keyboards to email.  So, it’s really important to recognize that disability adds value to our communities.

Ryan:               Your brother is also deaf/blind.  Is that correct?

Haben:             My brother is also deaf/blind.  He lives in California and he teaches computers.  He helps individuals learn how to use assistive technology.

Ryan:               What is your relationship like with him?

Haben:             I am among four, and he’s the only other one who’s also deaf/blind.  So, we shared books growing up.  We were the only two in our family who actually read braille.

Ryan:               So, I know there’s a lot out there written about the bravery of your mom.  Can you share more about her bravery?

Haben:             My mom grew up in Eritrea amidst a civil war between Eritrea and Ethiopia.  Eritrea fought for independence.  Ethiopia wanted Eritrea to be part of a greater Ethiopia.  And Eritrea gained independence in the ‘90s.  So, my mother grew up during those struggles and she journeyed, walking, from Eritrea to Sudan and from Sudan, a refugee organization helped her come to the United States, and here, she had to learn everything all over again, a new culture, new systems.  So, those are the stories that I grew up with.  I grew up hearing her experiences and that taught me resilience.  Her story isn’t about disability, but it still teaches me to keep searching for solutions, keep continuing on my journey.

Ryan:               I know there are comparisons made to Helen Keller.  What do you think of those comparisons?

Haben:             Helen Keller was brilliant, hard-working, and she had touched many, many lives.  I had the benefit of growing up in a time where we had the Americans with Disabilities Act and technologies.  It’s much, much easier for me to connect and communicate with people in part because of the technologies we have now and because of the civil rights and cultural changes that have happened since her time.  So, sometimes I wonder, “What would Helen have accomplished?  What freedom would she have experience if she had grown up during this time with the Americans with Disabilities Act and with accessible technology?”

Ryan:               I want to go back, if possible, to your TED Talk.  And anyone who gives a TED Talk that’s on this podcast, Haben, I typically will ask them about their preparation process, how they prepared to get up onstage and do a great job.  What was your prep process like to give a fantastic TED Talk?

Haben:             Practice, practice, practice.  Lots of practice went into doing my TED Talk.  And beforehand, I went onstage the day before to get familiar with the stage, and one trick we used is to have a rug on the middle of the stage, so that way, I can feel through my feet when I’m on the center of the stage and when I’m slightly left or slightly right.  So, there are lots of little tricks that go into making a show successful, from tactile cues like a rug to practicing with different audiences.  Preparation makes a huge difference.

Ryan:               I think that is great advice for anyone, regardless of what they’re going to do.  I know it received a great response.  Did that talk changes your life?

Haben:             The talk has helped spread my message to more people.  I want to encourage more people to advocate for themselves, and the TED Talk communicates several messages.  One is it’s up to all of us to advocate for ourselves.  The other message is it’s up to communities to take steps to make their communities more inclusive.  Schools should ensure that everyone has access.  It’s not enough to just admit students with disabilities; you have to also make sure the cafeteria’s accessible, the digital platforms are accessible, the study abroad, math, science, that everything is accessible.

Ryan:               You have also spent a good amount of time traveling the world, speaking and advocating.  What have you learned maybe from a perspective?  What perspective did you learn from traveling the world?

Haben:             Every culture is different.  I was recently in India, Dubai, Mexico, and every culture sees disability differently.  Some cultures disapprove of difference and want everyone to the same.  Other cultures celebrate difference more.  So, it’s interesting for me to see how different cultures approach disability, and I do hope that more cultures start to embrace the unique attributes and talents of people with disabilities so that there’s less shame or judgement on those who are different.

Ryan:               What is a typical day like for you, considering that there are times when you’re traveling and other times when you’re at home?  So, what is a typical day for Haben?

Haben:             Most of the time, I’m traveling.  Most of this fall, I’ve not been home for more than two days.  When I am home, I spend a lot of time on my computer, I spend a lot of time meeting up with friends in San Francisco.  I also really love dancing, so I spend a lot of my weekends salsa dancing with friends.

Ryan:               I saw somebody else ask you this and I thought it was a good question, so I wanted to ask you: What do you fear?

Haben:             Fear is always there, always present.  I actively make a choice to ignore fear.  And sometimes when fear is present, it reminds us, “Hey, there’s something important here.”  Let’s go explore.  Let’s go learn why this fear exists and how we can overcome and move past this fear.

Ryan:               So, it doesn’t sound like you ignore it; you just embrace it.  Is that accurate?

Haben:             That’s a better way to phrase it.  So, when there’s fear, I embrace it and try to learn from it and allow it to be a learning opportunity.  You asked what I fear.  That’s a tricky question.  One thing I fear is that I’d stop learning.  I’m no longer in school.  I graduated from law school in 2013, so I don’t have teachers forcing me to learn material.  Now it’s up to me to continue learning and growing.  I have to make sure that I’m actively engaged and learning, and one of my fears is that I would stop learning.

Ryan:               A friend of mine, named Joe Drayer, initially connected you and I.  And he’d written you, I thought, very kind email saying he was moved by your advocacy and your message and connected us.  And for me, it’s very neat when something like that happens: A friend and listener connects me with somebody who would be a great guest.  When you saw that you were being connected with a guy who has a podcast called The Learning Leader Show, what was your first thought?

Haben:             I like the name “Learning Leaders.”  I love learning and I think learning is very important.  So, I was super curious, “What is this program?  Let me go learn about it,” and then I went onto your website to learn more.

Ryan:               What did you think?

Haben:             I think it’s a great program to teach people that learning is part of leadership.

Ryan:               Great answer.  Thank you.  So, Haben, what is next for you?  What do you see?  Do you set goals for yourself?  Or what do you see over the next year, two years, five years?   What are do hope happens?

Haben:             My goal right now is to change our culture so that disability is seen as an asset that adds value to communities.  Too often, the story of disability is that of problem and inconvenience and burden, so I want to change how our culture sees the disability story and provide new, positive stories of disability.  I’m doing that through multiple ways.  One way is through trainings and workshops for various organizations, which is what I spend my time doing: traveling and giving presentations.  Also through reading, also meeting with the leaders, and through media, like The Learning Leader Show.

Ryan:               Nice.  I noticed from looking at your Twitter account, which is @HabenGirma, you were denied for a ride in an Uber three times in one night, and this created some attention.  What happened when you tried to get an Uber and, three separate times, you were denied?  And what was the result from that?

Haben:             So, an ongoing problem with Uber and other taxi companies, car service companies, whatever you want to call them, is that many of the drivers are not trained about the Americans with Disabilities Act.  The ADA requires that all of these companies provide services to people with disabilities.  So, sometimes I get an Uber driver who says, “No dogs,” and I say, “Actually, you’re required by law to admit customers with service dogs.”  And sometimes they give in, sometimes they refuse.  And one night last month, three different drivers refused me ride.  It was cold, it was New York City, and after the third driver, I told my friend, “Maybe we should just try Yellow Cab.”  And she flagged down a Yellow Cab and I got in, it took us, and I went home.  I have had problems with Yellow Cabs as well.  So, it’s an ongoing problem that many of these drivers need to be trained.  The ADA requires equal access.  You need to admit customers with service dogs.  And I use Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn to share these stories to try to teach people the law that people with disabilities are permitted equal access.

Ryan:               It’s incredible.  It’s great to see.  At least not what they did, but how you responded.  Haben, just one more question, and that is where would you send the people listening or reading this transcript to learn more about you online?

Haben:             To learn more about my work, visit my website, HabenGirma.com.  It’s H-A-B-E-N-G-I-R-M-A dot com.

Ryan:               Great.  Well, thank you so much for being here.  It was great to talk to you and I’d love to continue our communication as we both progress on our journeys.

Haben:             Thanks for having me on the show, Ryan.  And thanks for encouraging everyone to continue learning, growing, and being leaders.

Ryan:               All right.  Thanks so much again, Haben.

Haben:             You’re very welcome.  Thank you, Ryan.

Outtro:             This episode of The Learning Leader Show is over, but we have plenty more to keep you locked in until next time.  Head           over to LearningLeaderShow.com for more information and to request your favorite entrepreneur, CEO, world-class athlete, or anyone else that inspires you.  You can also talk to Ryan directly by reaching out to him on Twitter @RyanHawk12.  Thanks again, and we’ll see you next time on The Learning Leader Show.

Ryan:               Pumped for our new sponsor this year.  It’s FreshBooks.  The working world has changed.  With the growth of the internet, there’s never been more opportunities for the self-employed.  To meet this end, FreshBooks is excited to announce the launch of an all-new version of their Cloud accounting software.  It’s been redesigned from the ground up and custom built for exactly the way you work.  Get ready for the simplest way to be more productive, organized, and most importantly, get paid quickly.  The all-new FreshBooks is not only easy to use; it’s also packed full of powerful features like create and send professional looking invoices in less than 30 seconds, set up online payments with just a couple of clicks and get paid up to four days faster, and see when your client has seen your invoice and put an end to the guessing games.  FreshBooks is offering a 30-day unrestricted free trial to my listeners.  To claim it, just go to FreshBooks.com/Learning and enter “Learning Leader” in the “How did you hear about us?” section.

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