Tech Law for Everyone

October 4, 2019

“I want to reach all audiences — most people don’t understand the struggles faced by people with disabilities.” Haben Girma

On 7 October 2019 the US Supreme Court rejected an appeal from Dominos Pizza Inc., leaving in place a lower court decision against the company. The case was originally brought by a blind man who sued the pizza chain after he was unable to order food on Domino’s website and mobile app despite using screen-reading software. The lawsuit is one of an increasing number filed over website accessibility in recent years. Last year, more than 2,200 such suits were filed in federal courts. It is ironic that technology developed to increase public access, still excludes a significant proportion of our community.

Earlier this year Richard Susskind wrote to me and told me that he had just come back from a conference in New York where he had heard a brilliant, transformative speaker who would be the perfect candidate for the 2019 SCL Sir Brian Neill Lecture. I am delighted that Haben Girma accepted SCL’s invitation to give the SCL Lecture this year – Haben is the first deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School.

Haben Girma is a lawyer, a disability rights advocate, a 2013 White House Champions of Change honouree, a keen ballroom dancer and she likes surfing (on the ocean). Haben regards her disability as an opportunity for innovation and change. She has developed a two-keyboard system so that people can communicate with her more easily and she challenges our community to develop technology that is accessible and inclusive to all. 

For the SCL team, organising an event that features a deafblind speaker has certainly brought into sharp focus the obstacles that people with disabilities are forced to overcome every day. Everything from booking an accessible venue to researching the availability of accessible accommodation highlighted that many public places are still more or less inaccessible for people with disabilities.  

“Sometimes it’s easier to advocate when you know your actions will affect everyone who comes after you”. Haben Girma

Why is Haben giving her debut speech in the UK to the tech law community? Because she campaigns for the development of accessible digital services – you may be (or have clients) involved in developing this kind of technology now. But also because Haben is challenging our community to break down the barriers that exclude people with disabilities, to be more aware and inclusive, and this challenge is applicable to all. As a tech law community, we must advocate inclusiveness, otherwise we run the risk of inadvertently sanctioning ableism (discrimination in favour of able-bodied people) and therefore missing out on a wealth of talent.

“Disability is part of the human experience. We all need to engage in the work to make our world accessible to everyone. Inclusion is a choice”. Haben Girma

In the year that celebrates 100 years of women lawyers, it couldn’t be more apt that Haben will give the 2019 SCL Sir Brian Neill Lecture. Whether trying to help remove the obstacles that disabled people encounter every day or break the glass ceiling – Haben’s lecture will be universally relevant and she will change the way you think about the people around you forever.  

You may also want to join Pinsent Masons, Reed Smith, DLA Piper and Twenty Essex and sponsor the lecture. Your support of this event will help towards the cost of holding the lecture at the IET which sets the industry standard for accessibility. Any profits will go towards the establishment of an SCL bursary to assist a person with disabilities attend law school.

The SCL Sir Brian Neill Lecture: “Disability & Innovation: The Universal Benefits of Inclusive Design” will take place on Tuesday 26 November 2019 at the IET in London. 

Caroline Gould is the Chief Executive of the Society for Computers and Law.