Equal Rights

11.05.14 10:45 AM ET

TEDx Talks Have a Disability Problem—but This Incredible Young Woman Is Working to Change That

Meet the incredible young woman whose talk on disability rights was a hit at TEDx—and who had to fight to get that talk accessible to her fellow blind and deaf.

Haben Girma starts our phone call with an explanation of how she will hear me. She begins most conversations like this, she says in a chipper voice, and she hasn’t yet grown tired of it. Girma is a 26-year-old Harvard Law School graduate—and she is blind and deaf.

She’s being assisted by a translator, who is transcribing my questions into braille, which Girma then reads and responds to verbally. If our interview were in person, she would ask me to type out questions on a braille display. Technology, she says, has expanded exponentially since she entered kindergarten and first began communicating with the wider society. Today, she feels—and has proven—there are few limitations to what she can do.

The issue is, not everyone has adapted with the times. Online, a huge quantity of content is impossible to access for people with disabilities. So Girma, a budding disability-rights lawyer, is fighting in court to open the information highway to others like her, one website at a time.

“A lot of services and businesses are moving online and if they don’t provide access to people with disabilities, it destroys so many opportunities,” says Girma, who’s currently a prestigious Skadden Fellowship attorney at Disability Rights Advocates in Berkeley, California. “It harms our right to live in this world as equals.”

The daughter of an Eritrean refugee, Girma has an impressive resume: In 2013, she was named a White House “Champion of Change.” At Harvard, she was active in the Black Law Students Association and the Ballroom Dance Team, and was named one of its most impressive students by Business Insider. She graduated from her undergraduate program magna cum laude. Somehow she also found time to intern at the U.S. Department of Education and help build a school in Mali.

In January, Girma was preparing for a TEDx talk she would give on stage in Baltimore at the annual conference. She was told by the organization to watch a presentation done by Chris Anderson, the founder of TED, called “What Makes a Great Talk, Great.” Unfortunately, though the talk had been released months earlier, captions had yet to be added, and that meant Girma’s computer screen software couldn’t translate it into braille. Girma was unable to watch it.

Perusing the TED offerings, she realized that barely any of the TEDx presentations were outfitted with captions to make them accessible to deaf viewers. TEDx is the independent arm of TED, and local organizers across the world can host such talks in accordance with TED guidelines. Official TED talks were captioned, but only six percent of the TEDx videos were.

“TEDx talks are called ideas worth sharing and people learn a lot from them so it’s important these talks become accessible,” she says.

Ironically, Girma’s speech was to be about disability rights and her work in advocating for equality. After she presented it, she made a special request that her talk be captioned since the hard of hearing community would be unable to use it otherwise. “It’s a talk by a deaf person about access for people with disabilities,” she says. “Deaf and hard of hearing who wanted to view it could not get access to the talk—it was ridiculous.” After months of pushing, captions were added to the talk in April.

“I felt embarrassed and humiliated,” she says. “It implied that I didn't care or wasn’t interested in providing access, but I did very much care, it was TED not providing access.”

Since Girma’s speech aired, it has racked up nearly 13,000 views on YouTube, and Girma has been flooded with inspiring stories. She was particularly touched by one mother who told Girma she had lost hope that her deaf-blind son could lead a happy, successful life until she watched the TED presentation. “It’s amazing how TEDx talks can really change lives,” Girma says. “I’m really honored that my story can do that to people.”

Girma sent a letter to TED, urging it to caption all the videos, but she says the response indicated disinterest.

In a statement emailed to The Daily Beast, TED noted that it has captioned the 1,900 official TED talks “because it’s critical to the mission of TED to help ideas spread as widely as possible.” But the organization said it would be impossible to provide this service with TEDx. “These events have generated more than 50,000 talks in 40-plus languages,” a spokesperson wrote. “It would not be feasible for TED, as a small non-profit organization, to provide transcription—and English-language translation—for each of those videos.”

But Girma says the issue is larger than a desire to watch a few inspiring speeches. She’s arguing that by not captioning its videos, what TED is doing is actually against the law. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was passed in 1990, companies must provide equal access to deaf and blind populations.

“To the extent they can afford and have ability to provide captions they need to—they’re legally required to,” she says of TED, though she’s aware it can be a strain on smaller company. “We’re interested in reasonable accommodations and whatever’s commercially reasonable. We’re not trying to make them go bankrupt.”

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This isn’t Girma’s first time threatening legal action for access. In July, DRA filed a lawsuit against Scribd, the online reading subscription service, on behalf of National Federation of the Blind and a blind woman named Heidi Viens. With 40 million documents on its website and app, Scribd is a library trove of books. But the site is incompatible with special screen reading software that would make it accessible to blind readers.

Last week, Scribd filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that the ADA doesn’t apply to the Internet, only physical spaces. But Girma knows this may not stand in court. Four years ago, Netflix was sued under a similar pretense. They used the same argument but after two years submitted that its content fell under the ADA umbrella and agreed to caption it all.

“If some institutions are really stubborn then we use litigation to make them realize it’s not a choice,” Girma says. “Access is required.”

In the meantime, she’s leading workshops to teach programmers how to provide access for people with disabilities on their websites.

The courtroom wasn’t always her ambition. As an undergraduate at Lewis and Clark college, in Portland, Oregon, Girma thought she’d pursue writing or cultural anthropology. But sophomore year, she led a campaign that proved she had the gall for battle. During college, Girma dreaded going to the cafeteria. Three times a day, she would navigate the options without any idea what was on the menu that day. She wrote to the managers and requested it be made accessible to her, but her request was dismissed.

“There are lots of major problems in the world and to some people access to cafeteria menus might seem trivial—it’s sort of a first world problem,” she says. But to her, it was another stress thrown onto her workload.

Eventually, she read into the ADA and wrote again, threatening legal action unless she was accommodated. The college’s tune completely changed, she said, and blind-accessible menus were provided. Girma realized that law was her best tool to get equal footing for herself and the wider population of impaired Americans.

This was an experience she also spoke about on the stage at TED. “I live and operate in a world that's designed for people who can see and hear, and I figured this would just be another thing I would have to deal with,” she said, “like not being able to drive, or not being able to watch the latest Grammys, or people not knowing how to communicate with someone who is deaf-blind.”

The communication confusion is short lived. Girma’s got her opening spiel practiced, and from that point on, she’s ready to talk all the way to a court of law.