Texting a friend when you’re in the same room isn’t that unusual. But interviewing someone over text when you’re staring them in the eyes doesn’t feel right.
For Haben Girma, communicating with keyboards is simply a necessity. Girma, 29, is deaf and blind; she was born that way. But none of that prevented her from speaking at two packed panels during South by Southwest last week and taking a few minutes to chat with me.
“Hi Haben, I’m Kerry, reporter for Mashable,” I typed on a keyboard that was placed in front of me outside of a conference room at the Hilton Austin Downtown to talk with Girma. I had slowed down my typing and prayed that the message went through without typos, or at least was clear enough.
In just a few seconds, Girma asked with a sense of excitement in her voice, “Are you going to write about this?”
“Because we need more attention. You can help us!” she added.
Girma wasn’t speaking about she herself, but rather about the topic of her panel. Just minutes earlier, she had been part of an official SXSW panel titled, “Y35 W3 C4N: Innovations in Accessibility.” Girma, along with Betsy Furler of Bridging Apps; Richard Ellenson of the Cerebral Palsy Foundation; and Sarah Herrlinger, Apple’s accessibility director, spoke about the need for more commitment to accessibility in tech by businesses and entrepreneurs.
“The biggest [issue] is awareness,” Herrlinger said on the panel. “I could go do a presentation in front of 1,000 people about accessibility and people would come up and say you should talk about this more.”
The week prior, Apple had hosted its first in-school coding class for students at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Each of the participants wrote code that helped them fly drones, Austin American-Statesman reported.
Apple’s event at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired in March 2018Herrlinger told Mashable after the SXSW panel that Apple plans to do more events under its initiative “Everyone Can Code,” which could include Apple stores and more specialized schools. (Apple will be hosting an event in Chicago on education March 27.)
For Girma and Herrlinger, talking about and working directly with accessibility in the tech industry is a part of their daily lives. What they both want is for everyone to be a part of the disability conversation.
“Disability tech is an investment in you. … All of our bodies change.”
“I don’t think people have the perception of what is available to them,” Herrlinger said of the tech industry.
Apple has a website dedicated to accessibility. But that doesn’t mean people can easily find the site and may not think it’s achievable or worthwhile to add that type of technology to their code.
“One of the biggest obstacles is the attitude that accessibility is charity. ‘Oh, I’ll deal with it later because we don’t have time.’ Disability tech is an investment in you. All of our bodies change,” Girma said. “Design it with access in mind.”
At SXSW, the tech giants and startups come to show the latest gadgets, such as Bose’s augmented reality sunglasses or Sony’s augmented reality air hockey. Film and TV studios, including HBO’s Westworld, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Ready Player One, try to impress attendees with experiences. But when I reflect on my week at SXSW and what really inspired me the most, the answer is clear: Haben Girma.
Girma’s recent tweet to me — because, yes, she can use Twitter (her profile says she’s the “first deafblind Graduate of Harvard Law School”) — reinforced that even more:
I enjoyed meeting you, too, Kerry! Thanks for taking the time to learn about making tech accessible for people with disabilities.
— Haben Girma (@HabenGirma) March 21, 2018
SXSW can be a visual and audio overload with installations at every corner and local bands playing throughout the week. But Girma’s presence and eloquence throughout it all made the biggest impression to me. When speaking at The Girls’ Lounge, an oasis run by The Female Quotient during business conferences, Girma referenced the poster behind her that read, “Confidence is beautiful.”
“How did you know that was there?” asked Shelley Zalis, founder of The Female Quotient.
Girma explained that when she walks into a new space she often has her interpreter tell her, via text, what the room looks like. In the case of The Girls’ Lounge, that included the feminist posters on the back wall — something I hadn’t seen as I listened to Girma’s talk.