Future Reflections        Special Issue on Advocacy

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The Courage to Fight for Chocolate Cake

by Haben Girma

Reprinted from the Braille Monitor, April 2013

Haben Girma with Justice Clarence Thomas at Harvard Law School.From the Editor: Haben Girma is a third-year student at Harvard Law School. Recently she was recognized by the White House as a 2013 Champion of Change. This article is based on a speech she delivered at the mid-winter meeting of the National Association of Blind Students (NABS) in Washington, DC, held in conjunction with the NFB's annual Washington Seminar. During Washington Seminar, Federationists spend two days meeting with legislators and their staff to discuss issues of importance to blind Americans.

Last week Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas paid a visit to Harvard Law School. During a public talk he gave before the whole school, Dean Martha Minow asked him to name his heroes. He named his grandparents and one of his law clerks, and then he said, "I saw a young woman this morning. What's her name?"

Dean Minow immediately understood. "Haben."

Justice Thomas continued, "Haben. I admire her. I admire that kind of courage."

Justice Thomas was among the first African Americans to go to Yale Law School, and I am the first deaf-blind student to attend Harvard Law School. I would not go so far as to compare the challenges I faced to those Justice Thomas encountered growing up with Jim Crow laws in Georgia. When he graduated from Yale, he struggled to find a law firm that would hire a black man. By contrast, I have not finished my last year of law school yet, but I already have a job lined up, despite being a woman, black, and deaf-blind.

While I was fortunate not to have grown up battling blatant and fiery racism, I agree that it requires courage to become an attorney with disabilities. I have a little vision and a little hearing, but to avoid perpetuating hierarchies of sight or hearing, I describe myself as deaf-blind. When I thought about possible careers during my high school years, the prospect of going to law school seemed incredibly difficult, stressful, and downright crazy. I knew there were blind lawyers, but I had never heard of a deaf-blind lawyer. In order to become an attorney, I would have to pioneer my way through a thousand big and small obstacles.

In the many times I have needed to advocate for myself to get to where I am now, I have relied on courage. As we advocate for blind Americans on the Hill tomorrow, we'll need courage. Being a disability rights advocate starts with self-advocacy.

There are two very important components to self-advocacy. The first is being able to educate people about the legal rights of people with disabilities; the second requires creative problem-solving skills to find alternative techniques for accomplishing tasks. I'll use stories from my own life to illustrate each point.

After graduating from high school in Oakland, California, I attended Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. My college experience was good overall, except for some initial challenges with the cafeteria. The college cafeteria had several food stations that served different items each day, and the printed menu hung on the wall by the entrance. I tried asking people to read the menu to me, but with the noise level in the cafeteria, hearing people read the menu proved nearly impossible. At first I quietly approached a food station, accepted a plate from the staff behind the counter, and discovered what they were serving when I sat down to eat.

As a student with a busy schedule, I felt frustrated that I did not have access to the cafeteria menus. I then asked the cafeteria's manager to email a copy of the menu to me before each meal. Since the cafeteria always had its menus in electronic format, emailing them to me involved only copying and pasting the information.

The manager agreed to email the menu to me, since it was simple and easy enough to do. I still remember the excitement of getting those first few emails. Instead of picking a station at random and taking whatever the staff behind the counter put on my plate, I could finally choose what I wanted to eat! If the menu said Station Three was serving fried rice and eggrolls, I could skip Stations One and Two and go straight to Station Three. And of course I was thrilled to have choices for dessert! Whenever the cafeteria emailed me the menu, life was delicious.

But every other day the staff would forget. I stopped in their office one day to remind them politely that I needed those emails. They said they were very busy but would try to send the emails consistently. Unfortunately they continued to forget to send the menu nearly every other day.

As a busy student with a full load of classes, I found that eating well was very important. I explained the situation to the heads of the Student Life Department and Student Support Services. They told me the cafeteria was operated by an outside company and was out of their control. So I wrote an email to the manager of the cafeteria. I explained that, since I paid to eat at the cafeteria like all the other students, I needed access to the menu so I could fully use the services I was paying for. The manager responded, saying that the cafeteria was very busy, that they were doing me a big favor, and that I should stop complaining and be more appreciative. I don't know about you, but if Station Four has chocolate cake and no one tells me, I'm definitely not feeling appreciative!

Remembering a disability rights workshop I attended back in high school, I decided to invoke the power of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In my email response to the manager of the cafeteria, I cc'd several others on the management team to make sure they learned about the ADA. I explained that Title III of the Act requires businesses to make reasonable accommodations for persons with disabilities; if the cafeteria refused to do this, I would sue.

To tell you the truth, I had no idea what I was saying. How exactly was I going to sue anyone? I couldn't afford a lawyer. I could file a complaint with the Department of Justice, but what if they thought my issue was trivial? What if a judge decided that emailing a menu to me before each meal was not a reasonable accommodation? Part of me was nervous and worried, but another part of me was excited. I had a dream of joining the civil rights movement, a dream of pushing aside barriers for students with disabilities, a dream of eating my chocolate cake.

While I was eating dinner the next day, the cafeteria manager came over to apologize and promise that I would receive menus for each meal in a timely manner. And you know what? He actually kept his promise. I couldn't believe how much he'd changed, how much my life had changed--all because of the phrase, "I'm gonna sue." The threat of a lawsuit seemed as powerful as actually filing a lawsuit. By invoking the ADA, I forced him to set aside his attitude toward blindness temporarily, and instead to consider whether my request was reasonable. He originally thought that providing access for blind students was an act of charity, a favor he could do when he had a free moment and was in the right mood. Slowly the ADA is teaching people to change their attitude so that granting equal access to people with disabilities becomes the norm.

Threatening to sue is a very effective strategy for combatting discrimination, but it is only a last resort. Lawsuits are complicated, long, and expensive. Countless times I have requested and received accommodations through friendly discussions. The college I attended provided nearly every accommodation I needed, and most of the staff was very welcoming.

The second component to self-advocacy is creative problem-solving skills. Once you overcome discrimination, once people have changed their attitudes about disability, you will need techniques for getting the job done. Technology is constantly providing new tools with which blind people can accomplish tasks. While some accommodations require the development of complex software, such as VoiceOver on the iPhone, at other times the solution is simple, such as using Braille labels to distinguish between similarly sized bottles. Growing up, I had wonderful teachers who taught me many of my most valuable skills: Braille, cane travel, and an attitude that creative thinking would overcome any obstacle.

Several years ago I belonged to a rock climbing club for blind students. Rock climbing is an accessible sport for blind students; by feeling for handholds and footholds, you can pull yourself up the rock wall. We all learned to climb and belay. The belayer is the person who holds the climber's ropes.

To my surprise the instructor told me I could not belay, since I would not hear the climber telling me to lower him/her from twenty, thirty, or forty feet in the air. Although I understood his concern for safety, I felt frustrated that the other blind students were allowed to belay and I was not.

The instructor could not think of an alternative technique for deaf-blind belayers, and unfortunately I couldn't think of one, either. However, the fact that he and I couldn't figure it out didn't mean someone else couldn't. As in many other areas of life, if you can't solve a problem, you look for an expert in the field. If your bike breaks, you take it to the bike shop. Since I was looking for a rock-climbing technique that would allow a deaf-blind person to belay safely, I contacted a rock-climbing expert. The solution we came up with was brilliant. When a climber is ready to come down, he tugs on the rope several times to send a clear signal to the belayer. Since the belayer is holding the other end of the rope, he or she instantly feels the signal.

Finding creative solutions for people with disabilities can be challenging. It's easy to dismiss something as impossible. Many of you live with sighted family members. You have sighted teachers and sighted friends. For this reason you may feel pressure to act as the sole expert on blindness. I want to remind all of you that you don't have to be an expert on blindness. When you run into an obstacle, contact an expert in a related field to develop innovative solutions.

Once you've learned to advocate for yourself, the natural next step is advocating for others. This week we are all here to advocate for blind Americans. If the thought of meeting legislators makes you feel nervous, find your inner courage. Advocating for seemingly trivial things like the right to eat chocolate cake develops an inner courage, and that courage will serve you in the quest for greater rights. Remember that advocating for others starts with learning to advocate for yourself. When you assert your dreams, your needs, and your rights, opportunities become limitless.

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