Ethiopia: ‘The Greatest Problem Is Ableism, Not My Incapacity’

Meet attorney haben Girma, a passionate disability rights advocate

To the then US President Barack Obama in the White House, haben Girma seemed to sum up her long-term goal and passion in these words: to stand up for the rights of people with disabilities.

It was a warm day in July 2015 when the US opened its 25 public transportation systems.

An “American of Eritrean and Ethiopian origins, my ancestors shape who I am”, Ms. Girma introduced herself in an interview with Africa Renewal at the beginning of this month, almost six years after this ceremony in the White House.

“I’m the first deaf-blind person to graduate from Harvard Law School,” she noted, “and people think my disability challenged me.”

She said, “The main challenge is ableism, not my disability.” Then she asked back almost immediately: “Do you know about Ableism?”

The term ‘ableism’ is new to many, she says, and “that’s ok”. And she would come back to it several times during the conversation to emphasize it.

Ableism, she explained, “is the systemic repression of disabled people, the actions and beliefs that they identify as inferior to other people.”

“If you can’t do something one way, it’s an opportunity to create something new. A blind teacher couldn’t read with his eyes, so he developed a system for reading with his fingers.” Have girma, lawyer and disability rights attorney

“Eyesight shouldn’t be a requirement”

Would ableism then encompass the lack of efforts to ensure equal rights, opportunities and access for disabled people?

“That’s right,” said Ms. Girma: “There are examples of ableism all around us, but it’s hard to notice at first because they seem so normal.”

And to make her point clearer, she gave an example of many she has seen over the years.

For example, when she wanted to donate to an international refugee organization, she couldn’t do it on her own because the website didn’t work with voice over, a popular screen reader that many blind people use. Ultimately, she was dependent on a sighted person to help her with the construction site.

“Visibility shouldn’t be a requirement for web pages,” she said. “Maybe that was an accidental barrier for blind donors, but accidental ableism is still ableism.”


Studies have shown that ableism is ubiquitous. This could be a lack of accessibility or the lack of suitable accommodation in public transport systems, building concepts or conscious attitudes. It can also be colloquial expressions that are scattered throughout the language.

For example, languages ​​around the world are full of colorful expressions and insults that seem to equate disability with something negative.

“Crippled,” “lagged,” “falling on deaf ears,” “making a stupid decision,” “turning a blind eye,” etc. are just some of the expressions people use to make a point that is not always conscious the harm, the injury, and the prejudice behind it.

The dignity of disabled people has not always been respected and they have not always been given equal rights and equal opportunities.

When the world in May 2008 the UN Disability Rights Convention and its Optional Protocol, the first comprehensive human rights treaty of the 21st like the USA.

These were the result of decades of lobbying by people with disabilities for the recognition and protection of their civil rights to non-discrimination and equality.

The Convention affirmed that people with disabilities have the same rights as everyone and deserve to enjoy these rights.


A year after the White House ceremony, Ms. Girma pointed out at an international meeting of application developers that technological innovation can break down barriers.

“If you can’t do something one way, it’s an opportunity to create something new. A blind teacher couldn’t read with his eyes, so he developed a system for reading with his fingers. This system was named after him, Braille. “

Years later, Ms. Girma took the Braille system further by developing a text-to-Braille communication system.

“I paired a braille computer with an external keyboard so people can type on me and their words are instantly displayed in braille. It allows me to read what they are saying and then, depending on their voice or sign language or a computer, answer what the person needs, “she said.

In the past few decades, advances in technology have made communication easier for people and made it easier for many people to access communication. And “if apps are made accessible, people with disabilities like me can use them and connect with people and exchange information,” she reminded the assembled app developers.

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As a disability activist, advocate and advocate, Ms. Girma’s advocacy and professional decisions have been shaped by her daily experience.

Technological innovations, including digital innovations, are an invaluable tool in promoting accessibility, but in less technologically advanced societies, digital innovations, although widely recognized as important, can take some time to take hold.

“The problem isn’t technology, the problem is ableism,” she replied. “Ableism affects education, employment, healthcare and every aspect of society.”

The fight against Ableism to remove social barriers is an ongoing struggle for Ms. Girma. As an American of Eritrean and Ethiopian origins, “my ancestors shape who I am,” and “I am also shaped by constant opposition to racism, sexism and ableism,” she added.

And if people feel inspired, why not “choose a barrier in the community and commit to doing the work to remove the barrier?”

After all, “my hope,” she said, “is that more people will be inspired to eradicate Ableism.”

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