‘If a deafblind person can learn to surf, you can make an app accessible.’ Haben Girma’s SCL Sir Brian Neill Lecture

November 28, 2019

Haben Girma presenting the SCL Annual Sir Brian Neill Lecture at the IET on 26 November 2019Having agreed to write something about Haben Girma’s  SCL Sir Brian Neill Lecture, I was determined to take a hard-headed approach. I knew enough about her to be impressed by her achievements and not to be surprised by her lecture topic: “Disability & Innovation: The Universal Benefits of Inclusive Design”. Haben:

  • is the first deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School
  • had been named by President Obama as a White House Champion of Change
  • has received the Helen Keller Achievement Award and numerous other honours and recognition from many sources. 

But I felt it would be facile and nigh-on insulting to focus on the lecturer and not the content. Overcoming disadvantages is laudable but it doesn’t necessarily make what you say interesting. As regards Haben’s lecture, the question I had to ask myself was: ‘Is her lecture any good?’ and ‘Does she have a worthwhile message to communicate?’ I did not want to fall in the odious trap of being like Samuel Johnson on women preachers.

My hard-headed approach didn’t really last. Richard Susskind’s welcome speech warned us about Haben’s sense of humour and she had the slightly nervous audience laughing at her insistence on getting a decent response to ‘Good evening’. From then on, there was a lot of humour, some great stories and a lot of charm but mainly there was a clarion call for a change in attitudes and it was absolutely clear that that was a message that got through.

What follows is a report from someone who was dazzled, charmed and inspired but who came away having understood the message in a deeper way than would be possible if it had been delivered from someone without Haben’s disabilities. I am tempted to gush, indeed I have in casual conversation, and it’s true that Haben’s charisma (even her dog, Mylo, has charisma) might have dominated proceedings but, judging from post-lecture reaction, there was greater achievement: turning life experience and struggles into concrete and attainable goals for all prepared to listen.

Haben’s message

On one level, Haben’s main message is simple. Disabilities are not to be seen as a burden but as an opportunity to innovate, indeed in the age of tech they should be embraced as a driver of innovation; by embracing such opportunities we will see innovations that benefit all of society.

That is a message that is founded in a lifetime of overcoming barriers – driven by a need for meaningful contact and making the most of her tactile ability. The use of her Braille computer opened up many options and reinforced Haben’s commitment to finding technology solutions to dissolve difficulties.

Haben has experienced both obstructive people and those prepared to make an effort to find a way. She encourages all to adopt the latter stance and it was clear in brief post-lecture conversations that she had had a considerable impact in moving people in that direction. Whether it is the surf school that found a way to enable Haben’s (rather impressive) surfing1  or Harvard Law School that overcame its initial confusion to facilitate Haben’s study, 2 a way can always be found. Too often that way has required a persistence in the face of barriers that turned the insuperable very distinctly superable. Numerous surf schools said ‘no way, impossible’ and Haben has a fund of stories of negative reactions that had to be overcome, most famously in her successful legal action against Scribd (an online collection of e-books and other works). 

Haben Girma surfing If a deafblind person can surf, you can make an app accessible

As Haben observed, people with disabilities are seen as a burden and too often that view is internalised by the person with the disability; that tendency has to be overcome. The barriers are not the product of the disability but of society’s approach to the disability. Complaining about exclusions of all kinds requires commitment, and Haben was quick to point out that it is not fair to require all disabled people to be lawyers! But not complaining accommodates broken institutions. Small barriers add up and confronting them gives strength for the larger battles. I almost felt sorry for the hapless college canteen manager faced with Haben citing the American Disabilities Act (‘food is not a special need’) – almost.3 

But these battles were not the main focus of the lecture. While Haben’s triumphs over adversity are fascinating and inspiring, her message to technologists (and to lawyers who advise them) is that they need to focus on inclusivity. This is not only because there are 1.3 billion people with disabilities who might then be within reach but because steps taken to include those with disabilities have a track record of being adopted by a much wider group than was envisaged. I loved the example of drop-kerbs which were put in place to enable wheelchair users but are now seen as a benefit by pushchair users, luggage pushers and even skateboarders but techies may prefer the example of captioning – designed for the deaf, then adopted by secretive video watchers and now seized upon by a wide array of users for all sorts of myriad purposes that were not part of the original business case. A commitment to inclusivity means increased content discovery for all, drives innovation and, as Haben cheerfully pointed out, it means you won’t get sued by a disability advocate like her (which would be frighteningly expensive).

Near the end of her witty and engaging presentation, Haben reminded us that disability is a characteristic of one of the largest minority groups and that anyone can join at any time – a sober reminder for an old man. But the upside dominated: designing for accessibility shouldn’t include assumptions about limitations of use – who would have thought that a blind person would find a camera useful but Haben and many others do. As we approach a step-change with AI-dominated innovations, the emphasis on inclusivity can scarcely be overstated.

It was an inspiring lecture, though I strongly suspect that Haben is pretty fed up with being told she inspires. Inspiration alone is not enough. The point she made in response to a question bears repeating: ‘Let your inspiration drive action in your community’.

Ramp it up: not just a tech issue

Haben’s main message is powerful and important, and has made me think about a range of issues. I do think it raises a point about exclusion by lawyers.

Mark O’Conor, in his brief vote of thanks, reminded us that the SCL tag line is ‘Tech law for everyone’ and it was clear that there was excitement about what might be achieved to make that tag line a concrete promise to the disabled, especially in terms of access to law firm websites and related sources.

But it is not just tech. Every choice of location, recruitment procedure, public-facing personnel, method of communication and language will have an exclusionary effect of some sort. To take a relatively innocent example, the tendency of lawyers to use lawyer-speak for the purpose of raising status alienates and excludes a massive proportion of even well-educated people. And even those who eschew such language exclude a sizeable proportion of the population by their choice of fancy non-legal words, like ‘eschew’. 

I think that it would be wonderful if we all thought about how to minimise exclusion rather than what seems most flash or cheapest. It’s not enough to just put in a ramp and it’s not enough to assume that your one employee in a wheelchair is thereby granted expertise which enables him or her to assess the effect of your actions on every person with a disability.

[1] ‘If a
deafblind person can learn to surf, you can make an app accessible.’

[2] Harvard:‘We have never had a deafblind student before’. Haben: ‘That’s Ok, I have never been to Harvard Law School before.’

[3] ‘Food is not a special need.’


Laurence Eastham is a freelance legal writer and was formerly Editor of Computers & Law.

Haben’s book can be bought via her website here