x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 22 November 2017

Disability advocate says businesses missing out on 1.3 billion-strong market

First deaf and blind person to graduate from Harvard Law School will be speaking about accessibility and inclusiveness  in Dubai on October 26

Haben Girma with Barack Obama in the White House in 2015. Pete Souza / White House
Haben Girma with Barack Obama in the White House in 2015. Pete Souza / White House

If businesses think more about accessibility, they can tap into a huge market of 1.3 billion people, says the global inclusion advocate Haben Girma, the first deaf and blind person to graduate from Harvard Law School.

She will be speaking about accessibility and inclusiveness at Naseba Global WIL Economic Forum in Dubai on October 26.

When people think of accessibility they tend to think about wheelchair ramps and lifts but Eritrean-American Ms Girma, 29, is more focused on the role of technology in driving inclusion - adding transcripts to online videos, descriptions to digital images and making Web text readable with screen readers or digital braille displays.

Ms Girma was born in California after her mother fled Eritrea in the early 1980s. She has three siblings, of whom one is also deaf and blind but says she was lucky to grow up in the San Francisco Bay, the “heart of the disability rights movement”.

That meant she was sent to a mainstream school that “valued diversity” and was given accessible technology such as a digital Braille device, which her brother had been denied in Eritrea.

“It is still rare, even in the US, to get full access in schools,” Ms Girma says in a phone interview - in which a translator types my questions for her on to a normal Qwerty keyboard, which are converted for her into digital Braille on her own keyboard for her to then reply. “The employment rate is so low for people with disabilities and that’s not fair; barriers in schools and workplaces need to be removed.”

Deciding while at school to become a lawyer, she was admitted to Harvard Law School and, after graduation, became an attorney for the law firm Disability Advocates for two and a half years.

During that time, she represented the National Federation of the Blind, winning a lawsuit against the digital library Scribd to make the design of its site and apps accessible to the blind. She was named a White House champion of change and met then US president Barack Obama at the White House in 2015, using the Qwerty and digital keyboard system to communicate with him.

Last year she decided to leave law to help companies including Salesforce and Apple develop accessible products.

“If companies practice inclusion, everyone feels welcome,” she says. “They can reach more people - 1.3 billion more people - all over the world and tap in to this huge market. It means more business and more people using your services.”

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The official World Wide Web Consortium’s online content accessibility guidelines “allow for a lot of freedom and creativity”, Ms Girma says; rather than being specific about font sizes, they are about making content readable for as many people as possible, for instance by making text contrast strongly with the page background. Apple and Android have guidelines for making apps accessible, too, she adds.

Videos that include captions and transcripts increase access for hearing people, as well, she says, as they may be “situationally disabled” in an environment where they cannot turn on audio. Facebook reports that adding captions to videos increases view time by 12 per cent.

It also increases content discoverability to have more keyword searches point to the text of your video, says Ms Girma. Putting in image descriptions so a blind individual can still “gain information from a picture” will also help with discoverability, also known as search engine optimisation (SEO).

As well as advocacy, Ms Girma is writing her memoirs and has moved into public speaking.

Ms Girma has some hearing, in the high frequencies, and enough vision to read print with a magnifying glass. Like everything, she says, disability is “on a spectrum” and there is an assumed hierarchy to it - “the idea that the more sight you have, the smarter you are; the less, the dumber”.

“People asking if you can hear this or see that also becomes very disrespectful,” she says. “I’m helping to change the attitude. Deaf-blindness just means significant vision and hearing loss.”

Indeed, there are words Ms Girma says we should take great care in using: “normal” and “inspiration”.

“Words themselves aren’t really bad - it’s the intentions that can be problematic,” she says. “Often people say, ‘you’re an inspiration’ as a disguise for pity. ‘Wow, your life is so difficult - I’m inspired to stop complaining because my life is not as bad as yours.’ If inspiration is connected to action - ‘I’m inspired to make my website accessible’ - that’s positive.

“'Normal’ is harmful when you are perpetuating hierarchies of ‘them’ versus ‘us’ and dividing society,” she adds. “Inclusion is about welcoming everyone. Be aware of what you’re communicating when using words like these: are you promoting hierarchies or inclusion?”

I can confidently say I am inspired by Ms Girma to try out more hobbies. She has paused her love of salsa dancing in favour of swing and waltz, was into rock-climbing at high school and has dabbled with skiing, stand-up paddle-boarding, kayaking and river rafting. “Salsa is a form of communication,” she says. “You communicate constantly as you hold hands with someone.”

Being deaf-blind has made her a good problem-solver, she says, as demonstrated in her rock-climbing. “There’s a belayer who holds the rope and I was told I couldn’t belay because I can’t hear or see the climber. But I thought about it and, with my climber friend, we tried a new strategy – when he’s climbing and wants to come down or take a break, he makes a tactile signal through the rope and I immediately feel it.

“I can’t just watch people around me and copy them, so I have to figure out solutions and be a pioneer.”