I am a big fan of TED talks. That is Technology, Entertainment Design talks. Not all of them, mind you. Anything over about 15 minutes has to work hard to hold my attention. But every once in awhile I do a random search on YouTube and scan possible videos about subjects I am interested in. TEDx talks are particularly intriguing. They have a limit of eighteen minutes, so they tend to be right up my alley. Who knows when I will learn something new? And I am always up for that.
It was with that kind of energy that I was searching YouTube when I came upon the video a few months ago by Haben Girma, according to the BBC “Women of Africa” series, Ms. Girma was born in the United States after her mother fled Eritrea as a refugee in the early 1980’s. She was the first deaf-blind person to graduate from Harvard Law School.
In 2014, Ms. Girma gave a TEDx talk (a self-organized TED talk out of Baltimore) about lawyers in public service. In that video, she describes the circumstances that led to her desire to become an attorney.
She received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Anthropology and Sociology from Lewis and Clark college. While she was a student there, she lived in the dorms for two years, and therefore, ate all her meals in the cafeteria, where there were five food stations. When she started classes, she asked that staff from the dining services office email her the menus each week so that she could put them in the screen reader on her computer. That way she could transcribe the menus into Braille. It was a good idea, and the staff agreed, but they regularly forgot to follow through. They offered to read her the menu, as they had for other blind students in the past, but they didn’t put together why that wouldn’t work at first. Ms. Grma cannot hear what was being read to her.
She recounts that she tried to talk to the cafeteria manager several times, but was all but dismissed. He told her, pretty much, that emailing her the menus from the cafeteria on a consistent basis was too much of a hassle for the staff, that access to the menu was too trivial an issue for him to be concerned about. He suggested that she should simply “appreciate” that she had meals served to her every day.
With that, as many college freshmen would, at each meal she simply went to whatever station in the cafeteria she got to first, and settled for whatever food was served to her. In her words, this method of doing things led to many “unhappy surprises.”
Over time, she made friends on campus and often shared meals in the cafeteria with her fellow students. It was in this way that she learned that sometimes the cafeteria served chocolate cake, and Ms. Girma thought “I love chocolate cake. And when there is chocolate cake at station 4 and nobody tells me, I am not feeling very appreciative.”
This discovery lead to her having a decision to make. Was this “fight” worth the effort? She remembers thinking “It’s just chocolate cake, right? Who am I to complain?” Then, as she thought through the issue, she realized that she had paid the same amount of money to be on the meal plan at her dorm as the students without disabilities had, and if they had choices about what they wanted to eat at meal times then so should she. Access to menus was something she deserved.
Research taught her that having cafeteria staff email her menus was a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Armed with the facts, she went to talk to the cafeteria manager once again, as she had so many times before. This time, however, she said: “If you don’t start emailing me menus consistently, I will sue you.”
Learning what the Americans with Disabilities Act required changed the attitude of all the staff members who worked in the cafeteria. She had the menus regularly emailed to her from that point on.
Ms. Girma said that because of this experience she “was excited to make the world a better place for other students with disabilities.”
After graduation, Ms. Girma attended and graduated from Harvard Law School, and was recognized by the White House as one of their Champions of Change. She now works as an attorney for the non-profit group, Disability Rights Advocates in Berkeley, California.
I was incredibly inspired by the accomplishments of this woman as she described this chain of events in her life.
The story she told had one question rolling around in my head long after the video was over. It’s a question I would ask to the audiences I speak to, as well as my closest friends.
What is your chocolate cake?
What things are you missing out on because you don’t want to rock the boat?
Are you willing to settle for less than you deserve in the name of not making waves? What will the personal cost for that be? Are you willing to risk it? How much better would your life be if you got all the things you deserved that were readily available to you?
Advocacy is no stranger to me, and I have had far too many people in my life tell me to appreciate what I have instead of fighting for what I want.
And all I can say is, I agree with Ms. Girma. Coupled with a glass of almond milk, chocolate cake tends to be pretty darn tasty.