Annual Review 2019
Haben Girma
by Haben Girma

Haben Girma: Disability is rarely the barrier

Haben Girma, the first deafblind graduate of Harvard Law School, is a disability rights advocate. In October 2019, she spoke at an event hosted by White & Case in New York. During her talk, “Disability drives innovation,” Girma shared thoughts on how accessible workplaces, products and services benefit businesses and all consumers. We talked with Girma after the event. An edited version of that conversation follows.

At a time when US employers struggle to find workers, it’s especially important to address the employment challenges people with disabilities face

Q: What is the connection between disability and innovation?

A: When you can’t do something one way, you come up with alternatives. People with disabilities have to be creative to adapt and succeed in the world. Using creativity to solve problems often results in designing the next best thing. Throughout history, disability has sparked innovation that wound up benefiting everyone. If you approach things from a disability perspective, you’re more likely to come up with good design.

Q: Can you give some examples?

A: Before the internet as we know it existed, deaf individuals struggled to communicate long distance. One of the fathers of the internet, Vinton Cerf, is hearing impaired. He and his wife, who is also hearing impaired, were looking for a way to connect without using hearing. Cerf ended up developing one of the earliest email protocols, and electronic mail became a way for him and his wife to communicate from afar. Another example is accessible online content—videos with captions, podcasts with transcripts and photos that include image descriptions. While companies may be motivated by their legal obligations to make content accessible, it turns out they also improve search engine optimization by associating more text with the content and increasing content providers’ audiences. Facebook research shows that adding captions to videos boosts view time by about 12 percent. Deaf people aren’t the only ones watching these videos. People who can hear rely on captions in situations where they need to be quiet, or where it’s too noisy to hear. There are also low-tech examples, like curb cuts, which originated to benefit wheelchair users, but now make life easier for everyone, including parents with strollers, travelers with luggage and kids on skateboards.   

Q: How big is the market of potential consumers with disabilities?

A: People with disabilities are the largest minority group. There are more than 60 million people with at least one disability in America and more than 1.3 billion worldwide. Total discretionary income for US working-age people with disabilities is about US$21 billion, according to an American Institutes for Research report. For comparison, this figure is US$3 billion for African Americans and US$16 billion for Hispanics.

Q: What steps can businesses take to reach these consumers?

A: They can hire more workers with disabilities and involve them in the development and marketing of products and services. At a time when US employers struggle to find workers, it’s especially important to address the employment challenges people with disabilities face. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is more than twice as high as it is for people without disabilities. Addressing this problem begins with training hiring managers and recruiters not to make assumptions about a disabled person’s capabilities. Employers may wonder: ‘How would a blind person use a computer?’ or ‘How could a deaf attorney do interviews?’ They simply write off talented people instead of asking them these questions and finding solutions. Disability is rarely the barrier. It’s society that creates the barriers.

2018 US unemployment rate for persons with and without disabilities

Employers will benefit by tapping into the talent of people with disabilities, says Girma.


Unemployed persons are those who did not have a job, were available for work and were actively looking for a job in the four weeks preceding the survey.

Data source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019


Back to the Annual Review landing page


This publication is provided for your convenience and does not constitute legal advice. This publication is protected by copyright.
© 2020 White & Case LLP