Speaker: Haben Girma

Multi-Sensory Perception & Inclusion: Transforming Constraint to Creative Opportunity

"Disability is not the characteristic that defines you; it's the characteristic that others project onto you, and it's up to us to change those perceptions." - Haben Girma

As the first deafblind graduate from Harvard Law School, Haben Girma aims to help eradicate "ableism" in society, the assumption that disabled people are inferior. "We are not inferior. But society often sends this message," she says. Now a distinguished human rights lawyer advocating for disability justice, she is an internationally recognized beacon of empowerment and inclusivity - appealing not to a sense of charity, but rather to a belief in societal opportunity and the creative potential that comes from honoring the multi-sensory nature of human perception.

Haben reminds business leaders that disabled persons spark growth and innovation. "Employees with disabilities drive innovation. Disability creates a constraint, and embracing constraints spurs inventive solutions," she wrote in The Financial Times. "Our history has numerous examples of people with disabilities leading advances in science, technology and other fields."

And she notes that many of the tools developed by people with disabilities benefit non-disabled colleagues as well. One of the first working typewriters, for example, was developed by a couple - a sighted man and blind woman - who sought to send secret love letters to one another. "After much deliberation, the lovers came up with a tactile solution. By treating blindness as a design challenge, they developed a revolutionary method for producing print by touch." Similarly, a blind astronomer developed a non-visual system for studying stellar radiation, converting complex data from space into sound - a system that expands the pattern detecting techniques for sighted astronomers as well.

Haben has transformed disability into opportunity at the cutting edge of many innovations herself. She came up with the idea of having transliterators in the classroom who would narrate discussion for her using an assistive listening system into her headphones (Haben can hear higher pitched sounds) so that she could follow the back and forth of the debate. Going further, Haben aided in development of an ingenious text-to-braille communication system using a braille device connected to a keyboard so that people can type her messages, or their speech can be transcribed such that she can then converse with them. Along the way, she's developed both personal non-visual systems for understanding things as varied as salsa dancing, rock climbing, and handling electric saws.

Her graduation from Harvard Law catapulted Haben into the global spotlight, and she was subsequently honored by President Obama as a White House Champion of Change. Former President Clinton, Prime Justin Trudeau, and Chancellor Angela Merkel have also formally recognized her innovative work and advocacy. Her journey from a child learning to communicate through touch to a formidable Harvard Law graduate ignited her passion for justice and equal access, and is upliftingly captured in her memoir, Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law- a Publisher's Weekly Bestseller and Oprah Magazine "Book of the Month" favorite.

Haben's influence extends beyond her individual achievements; it resides in her pursuit of systemic change. She works to ensure that technology is a tool for all, not a barrier. As a leading advocate for digital accessibility, Haben collaborates with tech giants and governments to make websites, software, and products user-friendly for people with disabilities. Her impact is not confined to legal frameworks; it spans across industries.

Born in California to an Eritrean mother and Ethiopian father, Haben's life journey has been a testament to the power of embracing the creative potential of uniqueness to forge unexpected connections. Her advocacy for disability rights has paved the way for a more accessible and compassionate world. Her work, as she aptly puts it, is about "changing the way we think about disability" - a mission that reverberates far beyond the classroom and courtroom.

Join us in conversation with this trailblazer whose journey of empowerment and advocacy has touched hearts across the globe. **Note: This call will be 60 minutes, to support the hands and wrists of the typists assisting with the call.

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