In this episode, we talk with deaf-blind civil rights lawyer and accessibility advocate Haben Girma about accessible justice and how designing courts, law firms, and the attorney-client relationship for people with disabilities can increase access to justice for everyone.
The first deaf-blind person to graduate from Harvard Law School, Haben Girma is a civil rights lawyer and she advocates for equal opportunities for people with disabilities. President Obama named her a White House Champion of Change, and Forbes recognized her in its 30 Under 30 list. Haben travels the world consulting and public speaking, teaching clients the benefits of fully accessible products and services. She is a talented storyteller who helps people frame difference as an asset.
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This transcript was prepared by Rev.com.
Speaker 1: Welcome to The Lawyerist Podcast with Sam Glover and Aaron Street. Each week Lawyerist brings you advice and interviews to help you build a more successful law practice in today’s challenging and constantly changing legal market. Now here are Sam and Aaron.
Sam Glover: Hi, I’m Sam Glover.
Aaron Street: I’m Aaron Street. This is episode 147 of The Lawyerist Podcast, part of the Legal Talk Network. Today we’re talking with deaf/blind civil rights lawyer and accessibility advocate Haben Girma about accessible justice.
Sam Glover: Today’s podcast is sponsored by Ruby Receptionist and its smart, charming receptionists who are perfect for small firms. Visit Call Ruby dot com slash Lawyerist to get a risk-free trial with Ruby.
Aaron Street: Today’s podcast is also sponsored by Clio Legal Practice Management Software. Clio makes running your law firm easier. Try it today for free at Clio dot com. Sam, we had the privilege of seeing Haben keynote the Clio Cloud Conference in New Orleans this fall and instantly knew that we needed to have her on the podcast to talk more in-depth about some of these topics.
We’ve talked a little bit in the past about accessibility as it relates to law firm websites and client experience and intake. I think it’d be worth spending a couple of minutes here before the interview refreshing how practices in accessibility can relate to better design overall for everyone.
Sam Glover: Yeah. Haben and I talk a little bit about this. I think it’s really worth emphasizing. Microsoft has a theory on this that they employ in their design. I think it’s really aware of just the advantages that you can have by designing for people who are disabled.
The theory is that people who are disabled have more challenges moving through the world day to day that they’ve already solved most of the problems that the rest of us have. In designing things for people who are disabled you’re probably solving problems for everyone else too. That turns out to be true again and again and again. You’re listening to this through the medium of a variety of devices that were all built with accessibility first in mind.
Aaron Street: Absolutely, whether that’s your iPhone with a whole set of accessibility features or on the website.
Sam Glover: Phones, keyboards, microphones. All of that stuff was built for disabled people first.
Aaron Street: We transcribe every episode of this podcast so there is an alternate text version of it. Those might help people with disabilities access the content in this podcast but the reality is regardless of whether you have a disability or not you might prefer the text transcript of this and it makes it easier for Google to know what’s in this podcast so that if you’re searching for this topic it makes it easier to find. Lots of ancillary benefits to pursuing things that are good for some people that make them good for lots of people.
Sam Glover: I want to say this again and again. It is not that difficult. I know that it feels daunting because it feels like you’re trying to put accessibility on things or you need to go out and reach out to a consultant who will make your stuff accessible. Really, it’s just about the stuff you ought to be doing anyway.
In hiring somebody to optimize your on-page SEO for your website you’re probably also nailing 98%, 99% of the things that you need to do to make it accessible. It’s stuff you ought to be doing anyway and it’s not that hard. I think once you dig into it you’ll find that it’s a lot less difficult than you maybe worried it is. There’s no reason to delay. Make it so.
Aaron Street: Today’s conversation with Haben is not an SEO conversation but it’s fascinating how a conversation about how to make justice more accessible for people with disabilities can have SEO and marketing implications and …
Sam Glover: It’s super neat.
Aaron Street: It’s a really cool topic.
Sam Glover: Here’s my conversation with Haben. Just at the beginning we’re going to leave in the delay while Haben’s translator types my questions for her to respond. I just want you to get a feel for the way the conversation flowed and then we’ll start cutting out the typing so that it flows a little more quickly. Here’s the conversation.
Okay. Go ahead and introduce yourself.
Haben Girma: My name is Haben Girma. I work as a disability rights lawyer, public speaker, and author. I teach organizations about the value of disability. Disability can be an asset to a community, an organization. It’s a matter of learning about how to be accessible and what are the different things we can do as a community to make sure our websites, our apps, our facilities are welcoming to everyone.
Sam Glover: Haben, thank you so much for being with us on the podcast today. Maybe we should start by talking about how we talked about disability. What are some of the words that we should be using when we need to distinguish between people who are disabled and people who aren’t and just discussing disability in general?
Haben Girma: The words I prefer using are disabled and non-disabled. A lot of people … Well, some people are not comfortable using the word disability but I’m comfortable using the word disability. The word disability for me is associated with civil rights because of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and other civil rights protections that use the word disability. Maybe in this podcast we can use disability and non-disabled.
Sam Glover: That sounds good. I’ll do that. On your website you have a frequently asked questions that starts with some messages that we should avoid when talking about people who have disabilities. I want you to tell us a little bit more about those messages and why we should avoid them.
Haben Girma: There’s several messages to keep in mind. One message is that when we talk about disability we should avoid trying to judge people with disabilities as existing to help non-disabled people feel grateful that they don’t have disabilities.
Often stories in the press will describe people with disabilities as inspiring non-disabled people to stop complaining. Like, “You have no excuse. Disabled person did this. Therefore, non-disabled people should feel shame that they’re not able to do this.” That’s not fair. That’s disrespectful. It’s still stigmatizing a group when you’re using them to shame another group. I don’t want disability to be used to inspire shame in anyone.
The interesting thing about the disability community it’s the largest minority group and it’s a group that anyone can join at any time. Our bodies are always changing. As we grow older change is a natural part of growing older. At every stage in our life we deserve dignity, inclusion, and access to everything. It’s really, really important to respect those of us who are different.
Rather than categorizing us as an other and stigmatizing we should instead be welcoming to everyone because it’s not really us versus them. We’re all going to change. We’re all going to be different at some point.
Sam Glover: It sounds like part of the danger is in thinking that disability is something unlucky that happens to just a few people when really you could almost look at it as a spectrum that we all sit somewhere on it.
Haben Girma: Exactly. There are actually a lot of people with disability. In the United States there are about 57 million Americans with disabilities. Throughout the world there are about 1.3 billion people with disabilities. That’s a significant population.
When companies choose to be inclusive they get to tap into this large market. It’s good business to be inclusive because you get more customers, a larger audience. That means more business, more revenue in the long run.
Sam Glover: When we talk about people with disabilities we’re talking about I think roughly a fifth of the population, which is a huge chunk.
Haben Girma: Exactly. We may also be talking about our future selves.
Sam Glover: I think, though, a lot of people who don’t think of themselves as having disabilities or who don’t fall into that don’t really understand how to empathize with the problems faced by people with disabilities in just moving around the world. Maybe you could tell us a little about your journey to becoming a lawyer so that we understand how that has played out in the law school and law experience that you’ve had.
Haben Girma: I am deaf/blind. Most of this world is not designed to be accessible for people who are deaf/blind. I faced many barriers. My disability is not a problem. The problem is the way the world is designed. People can choose to provide information in multiple formats or they can choose to provide information only in one format.
People can choose to design a building to have ramps and elevators so that people who use wheelchairs have access or they could choose to only have stairs and deny access to people who use wheelchairs. When there are barriers it’s not the disability that’s the problem. The problem is the design and the choices that people make.
Sam Glover: I really like that way of thinking about it. Thanks for that clarification. The world is a design problem and we’ve only designed it for some of the population.
Haben Girma: Exactly. Most schools are not accessible. I was very, very lucky. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, which happens to be the heart of the disability rights movement. The city of Berkeley was one of the first cities to have curb cuts so that wheelchair users can independently move from sidewalk to sidewalk and cross streets and travel around a city.
A lot of disability rights access changes have been first in the San Francisco Bay Area. I grew up here so I’ve benefited from many of these changes and I’ve benefited from having teachers and going to schools that valued inclusion. I had people telling me, “Yes, you can.” I had people getting me all the materials I need in accessible formats.
I had access to school. I was able to learn math, science, English. If I had grown up two hours outside the Bay Area in other parts of California or in a different state in the United States I probably would not have been able to get an education and go to college and definitely not go to law school.
I know other deaf/blind students in California who missed part of elementary and middle school because the school refused to provide real materials or they refused to provide interpreters. The parents and students spent all their energy trying to advocate for access when they could have been learning. There’s still so much unfairness here in the United States and limited access to materials. We need to change that. We need to make sure everyone has access to an education.
Sam Glover: One of the things that you’ve talked about before is just pointing out how many innovations that we all use came to us by way of designing for disability. What are some of your favorites?
Haben Girma: A lot of the technologies we use have been designed or inspired by people with disabilities. These stories are hidden. Very few people know about them. I think it would be beneficial to get these stories out there and have more people learn about the stories.
One example is Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the internet, is hearing impaired. Before the internet existed as we know it today, deaf people didn’t have an easy way to communicate long distance. Vint Cerf found that by sending electronic messages, electronic mail, he could communicate long distance with people without having to strain to hear on the telephone.
This benefits everyone. Email benefits everyone. Lots of people use email now. That’s an example of how something that helps the disability community, a solution inspired by disability, often has benefits for the whole world.
Sam Glover: I think when Vint Cerf was using the internet over the phone lines the phone lines were also designed by Alexander Graham Bell to overcome either his hard of hearing or his wife’s difficulty in hearing, wasn’t it?
Haben Girma: Yes. Alexander Graham Bell did a lot of research to try to find ways to help deaf individuals communicate. Through that process he ended up developing a telephone. That’s another example of how when you see disability as a design challenge and design solutions, often these solutions benefit the entire community.
Investing in hiring people with disabilities and making your businesses accessible drives innovation. You’re more likely to have a more innovative workforce if you include people with disabilities. People who think differently are more likely to come up with innovative solutions. Diverse teams are stronger teams.
Sam Glover: You’ve mentioned before that … Maybe this is just what you’re getting at but in designing things for people who have disabilities you’re probably solving problems for the world at large by doing that. By designing your firm or your business around accessible principles you’re probably building a more client-friendly firm for everyone.
Haben Girma: Exactly. Wouldn’t everyone want more clients? Wouldn’t you want to be able to tap into the largest market possible? Another thing to keep in mind is that the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. There are also other laws, state laws, and federal laws that prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities. Access is a right. It’s really important for everyone to invest in inclusion.
Sam Glover: As a civil rights lawyer I imagine you have a much clearer window into some of the ways that access to justice is harder for people with disabilities. What are some of those challenges that those of us who aren’t dealing with disabilities on a day to day basis may not be aware of?
Haben Girma: Some of the barriers that exist in terms of access to justice are physical. Court houses, reading spaces that are not wheelchair accessible. Designing access to people who use wheelchairs. That could be lawyers who use wheelchairs, it could be judges who use wheelchairs, it could be clients who use wheelchairs. There is a lot of information online regarding legal services.
Often information online is not accessible. The vast majority of websites and apps have access barriers. We need people in the legal field to ensure that their websites and digital information is provided in accessible formats. The web content accessibility guidelines teaches people how to design websites to be accessible. For mobile apps, Apple and Android accessibility guidelines teach people how to design them to be accessible.
Sam Glover: Haben, have you had a chance to visit Lawyerist dot com? I’m wondering how well we’ve done.
Haben Girma: No. I haven’t had a chance to visit it yet.
Sam Glover: We have tried to design it around those accessibility principles. It’s not really that hard. It turns out that a lot of those things that you would do to build an accessible website are the kinds of things that Google would like you to do to optimize for search engines. It turns out Google is also deaf and blind.
Haben Girma: That’s a good point. When people make their services accessible it increases content discoverability. Accessibility, some of the things that are necessary to do to make sure services are accessible online is to make sure you have text labels or images for buttons and when you increase the text associated with your content you also help with search engine optimization. Those are things to keep in mind. Access benefits you in multiple ways.
Sam Glover: One of the things you mentioned when I heard you speak at the Clio Cloud Conference is that you have to be aware of trying to put accessibility on your app or your website or your building at the end. Can you say a little bit more about why that’s a problem to try and add accessibility?
Haben Girma: It’s much harder to try to add accessibility at the end of the design process. It’s much easier to plan for it from the start. An example we often use is to compare it to building a skyscraper. To ensure wheelchair access a skyscraper needs an elevator. It’s much harder to build the skyscraper without an elevator. Then once you’re done building the skyscraper to add an elevator afterwards.
That’s more costly, time-consuming, it takes more resources. It would be easier and cheaper to design the skyscraper to have an elevator. Put it in the plans. Same thing with digital accessibility. If you plan for it from the start it’s easier to do.
Sam Glover: It sounds to me like accessibility needs to be part of the lens through which you see the world and see the design problems in your client service delivery methods?
Haben Girma: Yeah. Accessibility needs to be prioritized. Make sure your websites are accessible, have your designers look at the web content accessibility guidelines, and design the website based on those principles. It also helps with search engine optimization.
Also, keep in mind that there have been a lot of lawsuits these past few years regarding digital accessibility. I worked on one of those cases. It was a case called [inaudible 00: 19: 49] of the Blind versus Script. Script is a digital library. Blind individuals wanted to be able to read books in the library. The way the library was designed created barriers for blind readers and blind readers couldn’t read books on Script.
Script tried to argue that the Americans with Disabilities Act doesn’t apply to online businesses. The judge in that case looked at our arguments and agreed with us and said that the Americans with Disabilities Act does apply to online businesses like Script. Script and other online businesses need to adhere to the Americans with Disabilities Act. That was an exciting, rewarding case to be involved with. It’s something that a lot of organizations need to keep in mind.
Sam Glover: A bit of a stick and a bit of a carrot.
Haben Girma: Sam, can we take a few minutes break? My dog is crying.
Sam Glover: Yes. Of course.
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Haben Girma: Sorry about that, Sam. Thank you for your patience.
Sam Glover: Oh, of course. My dog is currently enjoying our freezing cold weather here in Minneapolis.
Haben Girma: Wow. My dog … When I lived in Boston we had to deal with snow. She hated snow. She would refuse to go to the bathroom when it started snowing because she didn’t like snow on the ground.
Sam Glover: My dog is a husky so my challenge is getting him to even come inside.
Haben Girma: Oh. Husky, those are beautiful.
Sam Glover: He is very fuzzy.
Haben Girma: Did you grow up in Minnesota?
Sam Glover: I didn’t. I grew up in Virginia, Panama, and the Dominican Republic.
Haben Girma: Wow. That’s a fun and exciting childhood.
Sam Glover: It sure was.
Haben Girma: Did you go surfing in the DR?
Sam Glover: I was in second and third grade so I don’t think I got past a boogie board level. It was very cool. It’s one of my favorite places in the world.
Haben Girma: Yeah. I went there for a wedding. It was amazing. The staff were super friendly. Often times when I go into a restaurant here in the United States the staff stare but they don’t really ask questions. In the Dominican Republic I remember when I was in restaurants waiters would come up and ask, “What is this? What are you doing?” Not in a mean way. Just in a friendly, curious way.
I just explained that it’s a keyboard and braille display. People type on the keyboard, I read in digital braille. I let them try it. They typed in Spanish and I know basic Spanish. I studied Spanish in high school and college. [Foreign language 00: 24: 20] I was able to read that and respond back.
Sam Glover: Very cool. It seems like one of the challenges is people who don’t want to engage because they’re shy or uncomfortable asking questions or approaching you.
Haben Girma: Yeah. I love questions. There’s nothing wrong with asking questions. I don’t mind if people ask me questions about disability. The thing to keep in mind is your intentions. It’s more about attitude. If someone uses the wrong word I’m not going to get offended. If they have a pity and disrespectful attitude I’m not going to be happy.
It’s more about their intentions, how they approach a situation. Is it friendly, respectful curiosity? Or is it pitying questioning, implying that you don’t belong and to leave their establishment? It’s really about their intentions and attitude. When people come up and ask questions I’m happy to explain. Deaf/blindness is rare. I don’t expect people to know about deaf/blindness.
My parents didn’t understand deaf/blindness. They hadn’t heard of Helen Keller or braille. My parents are from Eritrea, Ethiopia, so they were learning a whole new system: the American culture, our system here, and improving their English in addition to learning about disability access, braille, the civil rights movement, that sort of thing. I’m used to people not knowing. I don’t mind teaching and explaining as long as people are respectful and kind when they ask.
Sam Glover: It sounds like a lot of the solution to inclusion and to increasing accessibility is to include. At the beginning of every process, whether it’s creating a business or a building or meeting a new person, to favor inclusion rather than getting to it later.
Haben Girma: Yeah. Plan for it from the start. Make it a priority. Before you build something, whether it’s a new building, a website, an app, a program take the time to plan about accessibility. How can you make sure everyone in your community is welcome? If you’re not sure, do the research. Look at the web content accessibility guidelines, engage with the disability community. There may be disability organizations in your area.
If not, you could tap into national networks. You could contact disability rights experts, like myself. You can reach me. I have a website Haben Girma dot com. I’m also on social media, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. People can find and follow me there. Reach out to people if you don’t know the answers. Definitely start asking questions with the intention of trying to welcome everyone.
Sam Glover: I think what people will find as they try to open up their practices, their websites, the court system, is that it’s actually not as hard as it seems like it might be once you get started.
Haben Girma: Exactly. It’s really not as hard as it seems. Often times disability access needs are free, simple, easy. The vast majority of people with disabilities can explain what they need. If you ask, people can help point you in the right direction of what you need to do. Sometimes it’s being flexible. Maybe moving a meeting place from an inaccessible spot to an accessible spot. Maybe it’s just moving furniture a little bit to create more room. Maybe it’s bringing in an interpreter. Maybe it’s switching from telephone to email or using a chat service that provides access. Just being flexible about how you communicate, where you communicate, will allow you to connect with more people.
Sam Glover: That sounds awesome. I hope that lawyers who are listening are starting to think about ways that they can bring that fifth of the country who is disabled in and help them find legal services and make them clients.
Haben Girma: I strongly encourage everyone to think of this as a business opportunity. It’s not charity. It’s good business for all of us to be inclusive because you get to tap into a larger market. Sam just said it’s one-fifth of the population. 57 million Americans with disabilities. That’s a significant market. It benefits all of us to be inclusive.
Sam Glover: Haben, thank you so much for being with us today. I really enjoyed our conversation.
Haben Girma: Thank you for spotlighting inclusion, Sam, and creating the opportunity to teach more people about disability access.
Aaron Street: Make sure to catch next week’s episode of The Lawyerist Podcast by subscribing to the show in your favorite podcast app. Please leave a rating to help other people find our show. You can find the notes for today’s episode on Lawyerist dot com slash Podcast.
Sam Glover: The views expressed by the participants are their own and are not endorsed by Legal Talk Network. Nothing said in this podcast is legal advice for you.