Transcription of Haben Girma Interview by Sheela Gunn-Cushman

Pushing Limits on KPFA Radio. March 18, 2016
Transcribed by Zishan Lokhandwala (Third Year Student at U.C. Berkeley School of Law) and Pat Tobin (SFPD, Retired) – Co-Directors of the Safe Paths of Travel Nonprofit for Accessibility in Public Right of Ways.

The section below was transcribed by Pat Tobin

Haben Girma:                                        (00:01)
Good afternoon. My name is Haben Girma. I work as an attorney at Disability Rights Advocates in Berkeley.

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:                                    (00:10)
And I am Sheela Gunn-Cushman and this is Pushing Limits.

(music):                                                                        (00:15)
Keep on pushing, Keep on pushing!
I’ve got to keep on pushing, (mmm-hmm)
I can’t stop now,
Move up a little higher, Some way, somehow (fades)

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:                                    (00:33)
So this one-armed blind lady goes into this deaf-blind lawyer’s office, an’ man she didn’t come out of there for an hour! I’m not kidding. Sounds like a bad joke, but it’s true.

Well, it is.

Happy Friday everyone. Haben Girma is home grown, from Oakland, California to be precise. She went to college in Oregon and to Harvard Law School in 2010, being the first deaf-blind person to ever attend that college, unless you include Helen Keller who attended Radcliffe a hundred years ago. Radcliffe merged with Harvard in 1999, you know.

She has received many awards and accolades, one of which was the Skadden Fellowship. Hers was part of the work that resulted in National Federation of the Blind verses Scribd, the second of, so far, two cases to hold that the ADA applies to e-commerce. Her hobbies are salsa dancing and surfing.

This interview is like none I have ever done. I was typing into a wireless keyboard that was connected through an iPhone to the braille display that Haben read. Yes, that sounds like the song “There’s a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea”. I am totally blind myself. I have mild hemipleagic cerebral palsy on the right side, which in layman’s terms basically means I walk with a limp and my right hand isn’t very good for fine motor stuff. So I’m a one-handed typist. I type thirty words a minute, which is slow when compared with the rate of normal speech. I mean, think about it, that’s two seconds per word.

I’ve never been involved in Internet relay chat, or instant messaging, or any of these things where you have to type quickly to keep conversations flow going and to not lose the rhythm. I’m not an expert speller, and I sure as heck don’t have a BA, let alone a JD like Haben has.

Intimidating? Oh yeah!

I think the words that best describe the things that Haben is and does are: breaking down barriers, pushing the boundaries of comfort zones, challenges, perseverance, pioneer, curious and inquisitive. She also says that she is trying to stop the information famine which is her way of describing how everything is so fast in the information age, but so little of it is yet accessible to people with disabilities. I wanted to capture some of all the facets of that. And that is what you will here now.

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:                                    (03:30)
Haben, when did you become deaf and blind?

Haben Girma:                                       (03:34)
I don’t know, so often kids don’t realize that their own experiences and perspectives are different from the perspectives and experiences of those around them. So, for the longest time as a kid I didn’t realize that my vision and hearing was different from those around me. But it was probably around age five that my parents started to notice that my vision was

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:                  (4:09)
Did your vision change or lessen, or was it always the same?

Haben Girma:                                                          (04:13)
My vision and hearing decreased from about age five or probably from birth until about age thirteen.

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:                  (04:22)
And you still have some hearing, right?

Haben Girma:                                                          (04:25)
I still have some vision and hearing and I use the term deafblind because there’s such a spectrum of experiences within the field of deafblindness.
Sheela Gunn-Cushman:                  (04:40)
It’s easier to explain that than try to distinguish the differences.

Haben Girma:                                        (04:45)
Right. Right. It’s simpler to say, deaf-blind, than to say, a little bit of vision and a little bit of hearing. So much shorter and simpler to say, ‘deafblind.’ The other really important thing is that when I say, ‘deafblind’, I’m communicating that people shouldn’t expect to communicate visually and auditorily. I want to encourage people to find none-visual and non–verbal ways of communicating, like through text, through touch, through many different forms of communication that don’t rely on vision and hearing. And if I said, I have some vision, I’m low vision, and I’m hard of hearing, people are gonna try to instead communicate visually and auditorily.

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:                                    (05:34)
They’d cheat on you!

Haben Girma:                                        (05:36)

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:                                    (05:38)
(Laughter) Okay. We would get lazy and fall back into the comfortable known.

Haben Girma:                                        (05:45)
So labels are ways to communicate to people how you want to be interacted with, how you want people to communicate with you and that’s part of the reason why I use the term ‘deafblind’ to sort of let people known, don’t use vision, don’t use hearing, don’t wave at me, don’t call at me from across the street. People are fascinating. Some people are really stuck in habits and have trouble going beyond their comfort zone of communication, and others think of fascinating new ways to communicate.

So I had a friend who spotted me from across the street. Maybe he waved, maybe he didn’t. I don’t know. But I do know that I got a text from him saying, “I was walking on the other side of the street and I saw you and just wanted to say hi.” So that was a creative way of doing the same thing that waving would have done.

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:                                    (06:41)
Well, another way of doing that would be … I talk into my phone to send texts. That is how I texted you from BART that I was coming. So, if someone couldn’t type, but could speak, they could do it that way.

Haben Girma:                                        (06:55)
Absolutely. Voice to text technology is opening up so many opportunities for people with disabilities and for people without traditional disabilities.

(both chuckling):                                 (07:06)

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:                                    (07:08)
Bridging gaps.

Haben Girma:                                        (07:09)
Right. Right. And I’m excited to see voice to text technology improve. And once that improves, then maybe I’ll be able to set-up a system where it’s not only voice to text, but voice to text and braille.

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:                                    (07:27)
Well, your braille display has the ability, does it not, to translate typed words into braille? So, that shouldn’t be too hard.

Haben Girma:                                        (07:36)
So, my braille display can connect to an iPhone and voice-over on the iPhone can output to my braille display. So, technically one could speak to Siri or another app and that could be placed on the screen, which would then be sent to the braille display with voice-over. But, the state of Siri and other voice to text technology isn’t accurate enough to be able to rely on that communication.

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:                                    (08:10)
No, not when it’s important.

Haben Girma:                                        (08:13)
Right, right. But soon, one day.

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:                                    (08:16)
Ten years, give or take.

Haben Girma:                                        (08:19)
And maybe even sooner. (laughter)

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:                                    (08:21)
Hopefully. (laughter)

For those of you who aren’t geeks or techies, Siri is something one uses to talk to an iPhone, and Voice-Over is Apple’s screen reader built into the iOS operating system on iPhones and iPads.

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:                   (08:32)
You have a fascinating life story. Tell me where you come from and where your parents came from.

Haben Girma:                                        (08:46)
I grew up in the Bay Area and my parents are from Eritrea and Ethiopia.

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:
Have you ever been to either of those places?

Haben Girma:
I’ve been to Ethiopia and Eritrea several times. My family goes back every three years or so.

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:                                    (09:07)
You spoke with Victor Peneda about worldwide work and you were sharing anecdotes and stories with each other about that. Would you share some of your experiences with me?

Haben Girma:                                        (09:20)
One of my most amazing experiences, I went to the University of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia and I met with students with disabilities there. I was assuming I would not be able to communicate with deaf students because Ethiopian Sign Language is different from American Sign Language. So what would we do? When I started signing with one of the students, I realized their signing seemed very American, so I asked, “What’s going on? How come you’re signing American Sign Language, or is American Sign Language really similar to Ethiopian Sign?”

And it turns out that because of the Internet and YouTube, deaf students in Ethiopia are able to watch videos from Gallaudet and other institutions that use American Sign Language, and they are learning American Sign through this technology, and because of that, we were able to communicate.

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:                                    (10:26)
So, do you feel their hands or finger spell, or what?

Haben Girma:                                        (10:30)
For sign language I use tactile sign language, so I put my hand on top of the hand of the person who is signing and I feel the letters, and shapes, and signs that they make.

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:                                    (10:44)
Yeah, cause I always thought that finger spelling was so slow and incremental that it would drive me nuts if I only had that for communication.

Haben Girma:                                        (10:55)
There are all different kinds of people, some are more on the introvert spectrum and others are ah more on the extrovert spectrum, and if you really want to connect and engage with people you’re gonna use all the tools in your power. So, if finger spelling is the only tool you have, you’re gonna use it and you’re gonna love it

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:                                    (11:21)
(laughter)   If you only have a hammer.  [both chuckling]:

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:                                    (11:26)
Everything is a nail.

Haben Girma:                                        (11:30)
Exactly! That’s my point. But, to say more about finger spelling, it also depends how fast you are with it. Some people can be really, really fast and some can be very slow. Helen Keller used finger spelling and she was pretty fast at it.

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:                                    (11:52)
Well, she had to be.

Haben Girma:                                        (11:53)
A lot of deafblind people actually don’t really rely on finger spelling, but use tactile sign language, which is words and signs and phrases and gestures that carry a lot of meaning, rather than spelling out every single word.

Sheela Gunn-Cushman

[The next section of the interview was transcribed by Zishan Lokhandwala]

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:
Water break! I have lemon in my water. I love it!

Haben Girma:
I have mint leaves in my water.

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:
Ooooh! Very cool. [Laughter]. I’ll have to try that.

Haben Girma:
I really really, really like mint leaves.

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:
Oh yeah.

Haben Girma:
I’ve started putting it in my tea and coffee.

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:
Oh! Mint Coffee. [Laughter].

Haben Girma:
[Laughter] It’s really good. At least, I think it’s really good. [Laughter].

Sheela Gunn-Cushman: [to listeners]
We were trying to figure out just how I would voice things, whether they’re in real time or later. And I said that I could edit things out and put things back in and [typing sounds, speaking to Haben] I can do anything with gold wave.

Haben Girma:
Fascinating I didn’t know that.

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:
Only $50 but well worth it.   The question isn’t whether I can edit my side out or re-record it. The question is, can I talk and type same time. Maybe not, like walking and chewing gum.

Haben Girma:
It is kind of like longing and chewing gum. Some people can do these extra skills of typing and talking at the same time, but it is hard and it does take some practice. You’re doing pretty well, and this is totally up to you, if you like we can ask Chris to type because he’s my communication assistant. I didn’t ask him before because we’ve met before I and I think you…

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:
Yeah, yeah! Yeah, I can, I can type, I’m just [typing sounds] just slow.

Haben Girma:
Well, I’m not in a rush.

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:
Pride and spelling. Fingers fly, can’t spell.

Haben Girma:
Sheela! This is the second time you’re bringing up selling. We could try with Chris.

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:
But I enjoy the direct contact.

Haben Girma:
I completely understand I also prefer direct contact. So, it’s your call. [chuckling]

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:
No worries. Different perspectives.

Haben Girma:
So true. So true. So, going forward, don’t worry about your spelling. [Sheela laughs outloud]

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:
I sometimes lose my typing train of thought. [chuckling]

Haben Girma:
[teasing] Does this happen in email? So, when you use email do you similarly lose your e-mail train of thought?

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:
[chuckling] Yeah. But [typing], it’s not in real-time. So, you kinda can use backspace and read back and stuff.

Haben Girma:
I always like to tell people that you are able to use backspace, in this type of real-time communication. But, by the time you hit back space, I’ve already seen that secret letter you didn’t want me to see.

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:
[laughing loudly] Right!

Haben Girma:
Let’s practice total self-confidence and no shame about spelling.

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:
[still chuckling] No pride!

Haben Girma:
Exactly. No pride. Just be yourself and let your inner truth come out through your typing. [both laughing]

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:                  [speaks to listeners]
You’re listening to “Pushing Limits” on KPFA 94.1 FM. I’m Sheela Gunn-Cushman with Haben Girma. Adrienne Lauby will be along in just awhile with some goodies near the end of the show for you.

So, Haben, say more about how you taught yourself to speak in a certain voice range.

Haben Girma:
My low frequency is really bad, and I’m very deaf when it comes to low-frequency sounds. My high frequency is a lot better. So my theory is that growing up, I taught myself to speak in a higher voice because that’s easier for me to hear. But it was very unconscious, and it’s just a theory.

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:                                    (01:02)
So you didn’t set out to do it, you just sort of did?

Haben Girma:
Exactly. Yeah it just happened. I know my voice is higher than most people in my family, including my mom and sister. And my theory is it’s because of my hearing loss.

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:
Did you have any help or guidance like speech therapy?

Haben Girma:
No. Growing up I did not take speech therapy, but recently I have been taking voice lessons with an extraordinary voice coach here at UC Berkeley. Her name is Penny Kreitzer and she’s phenomenal. And in preparing for my speech at the White House, and my talk at Google, we worked together on public speaking. On July 20th

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:
In 2015. . .

Haben Girma:
The White House celebrated the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. I introduced President Obama and Joe Biden at the ceremony, and also shared my own personal story of how the ADA has helped me and thousands across the country in getting access and more opportunities

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:
Wow. That’s cool. And Google?

Haben Girma:
At Google I gave a talk telling programmers what it means to design with accessibility in mind. So what are screen readers? What’s the web content accessibility guidelines? Programmers have an incredible power. They could build technologies that increase access for people with disabilities. A lot of them don’t because they’re not aware of how people with disabilities access websites and apps. So my talk was to teach programmers, and other individuals who design websites and apps, to prioritize accessibility.

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:
Lots of potential.

Haben Girma:
Exactly, yeah.

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:
I don’t know how you follow up that but what are your plans for the future? What do you want to do, and where would you like to see the world to be in another 25 years?

Haben Girma:
I want to see more tech companies prioritizing the development of websites and apps that are accessible. More and more services are moving online. So many services at school now, from libraries, to learning management software, is all online. So I want to see more companies thinking about access and designing websites and apps that are accessible.

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:
And that are part of a larger tapestry.

Haben Girma:
Right. Right.

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:
I love how you used the word “hear”, like to hear something, when you’re mostly reading. It’s like how I use the word “see.” So..

Haben Girma:
I know exactly what you mean. People do get confused when deaf people use the word “hear,” like “I hear you” or “that sounds great” and blind individuals similarly use words like “see” and “look” and it does confuse the non-disabled population, but it shouldn’t, because words like “see,” “look,” “hear,” “sound,” are central to the English language and we often use them without really thinking about what we’re saying, we just use them, drop them in conversation.

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:
Without thinking about literal verbiage.

Haben Girma:
Right. Exactly, Sheela. So when I was using words like “look,” “see,” “hear,” “sound” in my article, I hadn’t really thought about….

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:

Haben Girma:
…oh this is gonna confuse people.

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:
[Laughing loudly].

Haben Girma:
It just felt natural.

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:
Right! I loved it, but I think it’s also true that you get a sense of how people are feeling, even if they’re just typing, especially in this day and age where we’ve kind of developed icons. Smileys, emojis, emoticons, for email and texting. Yeah?

Haben Girma:
Absolutely. So you’re right that writing has become a huge part of life due to technology like texting, email, chat programs online, and we’re able to pick up on aspects of people’s personalities, emotions, thought processes, by analyzing their text. What words do they use? How do they put the words together? What words are they not using?

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:
What their style is.

Haben Girma:
Right. What’s their style? And you get a sense of a person through their style, through their writing.

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:
Can you tell who’s who in a multi-person conversation?

Haben Girma:
I generally ask people to identify themselves so if there are multiple keyboards connected, [keyboard typing in background] Sheela would write S: and then whatever Sheela was going to say.

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:

Haben Girma:
Yeah, so kinda like if you were having a multi-person chat online, everyone would be identified through their phone number or an icon next to their message.

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:
Like some kind of moniker.

Haben Girma:

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:                  [speaking to listeners]
Now, in order to set full context of this, you must fully understand: for the sanity and patience of the listener, you have, until now, been listening to questions re-voiced after the fact. Please do not adjust your dial. You are about to enter the “Pushing Limits Zone”. This is the real sound of the interview.

Haben Girma:
And Sheela, what’s something you’re planning to do and learn over the next few months that takes you outside your comfort zone?

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:
Oooh. Let me think about that.

Haben Girma:
These radio interviews you do are a great way of teaching people and broadening the information available about disability and the various lives we have as people with disabilities. So it’s a great way of educating the public.

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:
[keyboard typing] A n d I l e a r n a l o t .   [continued with real-time keyboard typing] I    was    and    am    excited    about    the    challenge,  the  challenges,    in   this.    I    am    often    going    outside    comfort    zones    and    expanding    mine. I    basically    feel    that    there really is    no    such    word    as    “no”    or    “can’t.”    There’s    only    “when    will    this change    for   the   better?”

Haben Girma:
Right, right. And through these programs you teach people those philosophies that there isn’t “can’t”, or “no,” but just pushing yourself beyond your comfort zones to find new possibilities. And it’s by pushing ourselves outside our comfort zones that we keep learning, and stay alive, and enjoy the curiosity.

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:
Yeah. You never said how old you are. Do you want to?

Haben Girma:
Are you gonna reveal yours? [Laughter].

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:
Sure. [confidently]

[Joint Laughter].

Haben Girma:
Sure, sure. I will if you will. I’m 27.

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:
Okay. I’m 43. [Laughter]. Let me stop this thing…

Haben Girma:

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:

Sheela Gunn-Cushman:
[speaking to listeners] I promised I’d bring Adrienne into the studio to bring you some goodies, and… here she is.

Adrienne Lauby:
Thank you Sheela.

This week we’re celebrating the 26th anniversary of history-making protests, which helped pass the Americans with Disabilities Act, the ADA. In 1990, on March 11th, approximately 50 ADAPT activists got out of their wheelchairs in Washington DC and crawled the 82 steps to the Capitol entrance to support quick passage of the ADA. Their message was that Disability Rights ARE Civil Rights. The next day 300 ADAPT activists refused to leave the Capital building after an unproductive meeting with congressional leaders. 104 of them were arrested for demonstrating in a Capitol building and unlawful entry.
ADAPT is a national grass-roots community. They are especially active in pushing states to give people under ObamaCare the choice to stay in their homes or enter an institution when they need additional care. Read about this, and much more at their website

We honor those who walk, roll and crawl before us … the risks they took, the determination they showed.

Coming up: On the evening of April 28, the incredible Alice Wong is coming to the Ed Roberts Center for a free presentation on disability and media. Ms Wong is the founder of the Disability Visibility Project, and among other things, sets on the board of APIDC (Asian Pacific Islanders with Disabilities of California).

Recently, Alice Wong has been working as a Community Storytelling Fellow at “Making Contact”, the program that follows Pushing Limits on KPFA.   She’ll be coming to the event at Ed Roberts with her producer at “Making Contact,” Laura Flynn, to present excerpts of her new radio piece, which explores disability and personal assistance. Sounds so interesting. For time and other details, visit our website at

You can also find a transcript of this entire program on our website. That transcript would only be possible because Patrick Tobin and Zishan Lokhandwala stepped up to help and we’re very grateful to them.

We’d like to have routine transcriptions of our program to give access to the deaf. If you have some spare time and want to spend some of it delving deeply into the words of our incredible guests—get in touch with us. You can do that by e-mailing pushinglimits (all one word) at

Thanks to our guest today, deafblind lawyer Haben Girma, Erica Bridgeman, the best engineer in the world, Josh Elwood and the entire Pushing Limits gang. This program was produced and hosted by Sheela Gunn-Cushman with editing help from me, Adrienne Lauby.

We’re part of the collective of people with disabilities who produce this program. Our website, again, is we’re on Facebook as Pushing Limits Radio. Thank you for listening!

Next week at this time tune in for Education Today, with Kitty Kelly Epstein.


Hallelujah, hallelujah

Keep on pushin’

Keep on pushin’

What I say, now,

Keep on pushin’

People get ready!

Keep on pushin’

It’s gonna be all right now,

Keep on pushin’



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