Skadden Fellow: Haben Girma

As a deafblind undergraduate at Lewis & Clark College, Haben Girma fought for her right to access the dining hall menu, which in its printed form was of no use to her. When the dining staff brushed her off and told her they were too busy to email her the menu every day, she threatened to file suit.

“Suddenly, they started taking me seriously,” says Haben, who relies on technology such as screen readers and speech-to-text transcription with a digital Braille display. “They began to actually provide accessible menus that I could read. After that experience, I realized that the law is a powerful tool.”

She decided to attend Harvard Law School, becoming the school’s first deafblind graduate, in 2013. That same year, she was named a White House Champion of Change for her work on behalf of students with disabilities and began her Skadden Fellowship at the nonprofit legal center Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) in Berkeley, California.

When Haben applied for the fellowship, she had envisioned one day litigating high-impact cases that would result in schools providing accessible instructional materials to students with disabilities, but she had no expectation that an opportunity to work on such a case would present itself early in her career. Then, in July 2014, Haben and other DRA attorneys filed a lawsuit on behalf of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) against Scribd, the digital service that provides more than 40 million books and documents to subscribers. A decision in the lawsuit already has set a noteworthy precedent.

Digital content must be coded to be compatible with screen readers for the blind, which take visual information on a computer and convey it in either audio format or digital Braille. The majority of Scribd’s titles, however, lack this coding. DRA contends in the complaint that the lack of this essential coding violates the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), by denying blind persons equal access to all of the “services, privileges, advantages, and accommodations” Scribd offers. In its motion to dismiss, Scribd argued that the ADA exempts online-only businesses. On March 19, Judge William K. Sessions III of the U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont denied the motion, holding that the ADA does apply to Scribd and other online services. With this substantial victory already under its belt, the DRA team expects to take the case to trial in 2016.

The decision to file suit had echoes of Haben’s experience back in the Lewis & Clark dining hall: DRA initiated the legal action after NFB asked Scribd to make its content accessible to blind readers and got no response. “When you try friendly solutions and they don’t work, litigation becomes the last resort,” she says. “One of the reasons I was drawn to the law was because I realized that the law is a tool to empower people who often don’t have power.” Haben credits the fellowship with not only giving her an opportunity to use this tool in support of disability rights, but also affording her the time needed to do so effectively — to research the best use of the law to target barriers to reading, to understand what students with disabilities need to obtain equal access to education.

Her work at DRA won’t stop when the fellowship ends — DRA has offered Haben a staff attorney position, which she has accepted. “I truly value this work,” she says. “I intend to continue to use the law as an advocacy tool to ensure equal access.”