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Black History Month speaker discusses disability advocacy, inclusion

As this year’s Black History Month drew to a close, one final keynote speaker came to Colorado State University to talk about disability as a disabled person and a disability rights advocate herself. 

Haben Girma, the first deaf and blind graduate of Harvard Law, spoke in the Lory Student Center Wednesday about how inclusion and innovation create better societies. She discussed how when spaces are designed for everyone to use, it makes the space itself better.

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Girma talked about how her disabilities often made people unwilling to try to innovate. After deciding she wanted to turn advocacy into a career, she applied to Harvard Law. 

“I went to Harvard Law, and they told me Harvard had never had a deaf-blind student before,” Girma said. “I told them ‘I had never been to Harvard Law School before.’”

Brittany Otter, assistant director for access and accommodations at the Student Disability Center at CSU, explained why it was important for the SDC and the Black/African American Cultural Center to host Girma. 

“It was important to bring Haben Girma to Colorado State University for Black History Month because it is important to share and uplift her story,” Otter wrote in an email to The Collegian. “The collaboration between B/AACC and SDC intentionally focused on the intersectionality of identities of being a Black woman with a disability and her experiences in higher education, a story and experience often not heard here.”

Inclusion is a choice. All of us in the small and large decisions we make impact the visibility of our community.” -Haben Girma, disability rights advocate, lawyer

Girma told several stories of her experiences with various companies that did not have accommodations for people with disabilities, noting that after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, it is now probably cheaper to design inclusive spaces instead of dealing with lawyers like herself. 

“Inclusion is a choice,” Girma said. “All of us in the small and large decisions we make impact the visibility of our community.”

CSU President Joyce McConnell attended the event and explained why she felt it was personally important for her to go. 

“She’s accomplished so much, but she also has such an important message to send to students about being themselves, about playing to their strengths, making sure that they’re advocating and all of that,” McConnell said. “That message is so important for our students. CSU has strived to really embrace diversity and inclusivity, but there’s always more to do.”

Girma explained in an anecdote that the original purpose of email was to help deaf people communicate long distance. Now, it is used extensively by hearing people as well. Kaitlyn Wachter, a first-year human development and family studies major at CSU, explained why this takeaway was influential to her. 

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“Being more inclusive and finding new ways to help people who can really benefit from the help not only impacts the specific identity targeted, but it can help so many other people who probably didn’t know they could use it,” Wachter said. 

Girma explained the myths describing people with disabilities as solely dependent people. 

“There’s this myth that there are two kinds of people — dependent and independent — but that’s not true,” Girma said. “We’re all interdependent. You depend on other people to grow your food and build your computers. That’s OK as long as we’re honest about the fact that everyone is interdependent.”

An audience member asked how Girma felt about the word “disability” and if the language people use should be changed. Girma said that while people should respect however anyone wants to identify, she personally feels connected to civil rights and her community by that word. 

“I love being part of the disability community, and a lot of us take pride in that word and identify as disabled,” Girma said. “There are people who attach shame and stigma to the word ‘disability.’ The word is not the problem. It’s the shame and stigma — that’s the problem. So, rather than getting new words, I’d rather address the shame and stigma and create new stories of disability pride.” 

Meagan Stackpool can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @MeaganStackpool.

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