I noticed that there was a talk last week at Claremont Mckenna College on disability and innovation. It turned out when I went that the speaker was a woman who is deaf and blind (“deafblind” – I like to think I know a lot about disability, but I didn’t know this is a word, let alone a designation or a disability) and who attended Harvard Law School.
Her name is Haban Girma. President Obama named her a White House Champion of Change. She received the Helen Keller Achievement Award, and a spot on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list. She also has a book out – Haban: The Deafblind Woman who Conquered Harvard Law – and has been featured on the Today Show, the BBC and NPR and in the Financial Times and the Washington Post.
Like I said, wow.
As remarkable as all this is, what really struck me, what I liked more, was what she said. (By the way, she was able to speak, and a young man assisted her in walking up to the stage, changing slides, knowing how the audience was reacting – “He tells me when you’re clapping…or yawning” - etc., and, during the Q and A, those who had questions typed them so that she could presumably read them in Braille, which she did aloud.)
Ms. Girma’s message – one that I heartily agree with and have, in fact, held for a long time - was that the disabled must have accommodations, such as the man and whatever devices enabled her to give her presentation. Not only that, but, more importantly, these accommodations shouldn’t be seen as special, a favor, as if the disabled are second-class, other, being allowed, let alone enabled, to come along, be a part of society.
No. And as Ms. Girma pointed out, these accommodations end up making life richer and easier for everyone. After all, we wouldn’t have been able to hear Ms. Girma talk without the accommodations that enabled her to give the talk. It’s a phenomenon called the “curb-cut effect.” Curb cuts were originally designed to help us people in wheelchairs, but they were soon used by mothers with strollers, skateboarders, people with luggage, etc.
Indeed, as Ms. Girma argued, disabled people drive innovation. As she did when she was in college, and what led her to pursue a law degree, disabled people often have to fight for, to advocate for ways to make it easier or possible to be included in society. Coming up with ways to help the disabled helps everyone. In finding ways to enable them and make life easier for them, we not only make society richer by including the disabled, life is improved and made easier for everyone.That’s something to really wow about.