Computer keyboard with an accessibility green keyIn September, I had the privilege of attending a keynote address delivered by Haben Girma at the Annual Clio Cloud Conference. Haben is the first deaf-blind person to graduate from Harvard Law School. She is deaf-blind, and she speaks with conviction and power. Haben “listened” to the audience with a digital braille device. It was wonderful to witness Haben’s response to audience applause and laughter.

Accompanied onstage with her guide dog, Maxine, Haben recounted her journey. She was born deaf-blind in the United States to refugee parents from east Africa. As an undergraduate at Lewis and Clark College, she requested dining hall menus in an alternative format. When the dining hall staff failed to accommodate her request, Haben insisted that they accommodate her or she would sue. The audience applauded (Haben responded to the applause with “I thought a room full of lawyers might like that story”). She had no idea at the time how she would sue, and this incident inspired Haben to become a lawyer.

Harvard Law admitted Haben and then explained they’ve never had a deaf blind student, so they weren’t exactly sure how to accommodate her.  She responded, “That’s OK, I’ve never attended Harvard Law before, so I don’t exactly how to be Harvard Law student.” Haben’s inspiring story of inclusion, persevering, adapting, overcoming and succeeding moved me and several others to tears.

At the conclusion of her presentation, Haben responded to a number of audience questions provided on a keyboard. I will never forget my experience with this amazing woman. For more information on Haben, please see https://habengirma.com/.

Her presentation has also inspired me to action in one particular area. Haben demonstrated how technology is an important enabler for her. During the presentation, the importance of having a site that is ADA compliant was apparent. These include using alt tags for all images, where you describe image in words. This is important for accessibility and will likely help SEO as well. There’s more to ADA Website Compliance than alt-tags and I’ve started my process of updating my site to improve compliance with ADA guidelines.

My website is on WordPress (as are many sites) and I found a wonderful plugin called WP Accessibility. This plugin provides visibility when browsing the Media Library (where images are stored) to indicate if alt tags are in place for images. This greatly simplifies the image review process. Total Networks has begun a process of reviewing every image on the website to ensure that the alt tags are in place. As a bonus, this review of all images on our website encourages a healthy overall review of our site, while simultaneously doing the right thing for accessibility. There are a number of other items such as “skip-links” that the WP Accessibility plug-in helps automatically create. “Skip-links” allows keyboard enabled skipping to different sections on a page. Non-sighted cannot visually scan a page and then click or tap where they want to go. Skip-links are essential to enable reasonable keyboard navigation for non-sighted individuals. I’d encourage you to review the accessibility of your website as well. Do it for Haben!

Thank you Haben, for inspiring me with your wonderful stories and your indomitable spirit.