Today’s remarkable guest is Haben Girma. Haben was born in Oakland, California to an immigrant Eritrean family. In her early childhood, she began to lose her eyesight and hearing. She graduated from Skyline High School in Oakland and went on to graduate magna cum laude from Lewis and Clark.
After college, she obtained a law degree from Harvard Law School. She’s the first deaf-blind person to achieve this distinction. After law school, she joined an organization called Disability Rights Advocates. She was part of the team that filed a lawsuit against Scribd because its digital reading system did not accommodate blind people.
President Obama named her to the White House Champions of Change. She received the Helen Keller Achievement Award from the American Federation for the Blind. She was on the Forbes 30 under 30 list. And a speaker for the Time 100 talks. She’s also the author of
Compared to other episodes of Remarkable People, there’s a longer delay between the end of my question and the guest’s answer. That’s because what I said was typed in by a transcriber and converted for Haben to read on a braille keyboard. I did not delete the delay and the sound of typing so that you could experience how our interview actually took place.
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Transcript of Guy Kawasaki’s Remarkable People podcast with Haben Girma
Guy Kawasaki: I’m Guy Kawasaki, and this is Remarkable People. Today’s remarkable guest is Haben Girma. Haben was born in Oakland, California to an immigrant Eritrean family. In her early childhood, she began to lose her eyesight and hearing. She graduated from Skyline High School in Oakland and went on to graduate magna cum laude from Lewis and Clark.
After college, she obtained a law degree from Harvard Law School. She’s the first deaf blind person to achieve this distinction. After law school, she joined an organization called Disability Rights Advocates. She was part of the team that filed a lawsuit against Scribd because it’s digital reading system did not accommodate blind people.
President Obama named her to the White House Champions of Change, and she received the Helen Keller Achievement Award from the American Federation for the Blind. She was on the Forbes 30 under 30 list, and a speaker for the Time 100 talks.
Compared to other episodes of Remarkable People, there’s a longer delay between the end of my question and the guest’s answer. That’s because what I said was typed in by a transcriber and converted for Haben to read on a Braille keyboard. I did not delete the delay and the sound of typing so that you could experience how our interview actually took place.
I’m Guy Kawasaki, and this is Remarkable People, and now here’s the remarkable Haben Girma.
Guy Kawasaki: I have to ask you, how is this interview even happening?
Haben Girma: So we have a typist listening in to the audio wearing AirPods or headsets and listening in and typing what’s being heard and that’s coming out on my Braille display. So I’m reading it in Braille and then responding by voice. So you will notice a delay between when you speak and when I respond, and that’s because the typing’s coming through.
Guy Kawasaki: I’m just going to assume that that is you thinking of a thoughtful answer with great care and feeling.
Haben Girma: That works for me. You can interpret the pause any way you like.
Guy Kawasaki: Does she type laughter? What happens then?
Haben Girma: So all audio is transmitted, so laughter comes through sometimes ‘LOL’ sometimes, ‘Ha-Ha,’ just converting sound into text form.
Guy Kawasaki: Why can’t we go from voice to Braille? Not that I want to eliminate the person helping you, but why can’t we go from voice to Braille using AI and machine learning and all the good stuff?
Haben Girma: Oh, that already exists. It’s absolutely possible. It’s just that AI is not at a point where we can rely on it for professional, real life important things. So you can–there’s so many text-to-speech, speech-to-text tools out there. But if you look at them, they make errors. They miss-type names, such as my name, Haben, is always misunderstood and other important details are mixed up and that’s not something I want to rely on for professional settings.
So that’s why I don’t rely on AI. Maybe in ten years, it’ll be accurate enough to rely on, but right now, it’s not something I rely on.
Guy Kawasaki: I’m going to ask you my first questions, okay?
Haben Girma: Wait, what was all of that you’ve been asking? Didn’t you ask questions?
Guy Kawasaki: Yes, but I was trying to understand the situation before I ask anything, but yes, you’re right.
Haben Girma: All right. What’s your next question?
Guy Kawasaki: Clearly, you’re a Harvard Law School trained person.
I know that you’ve probably explained this 50,000 times–roughly the same amount of time that I have explained what it was like to work for Steve Jobs, but can you just give us the story of Eritrea to the United States? I know you were born in the United States but just give us a little bit of the family heritage there.
Haben Girma: What part of it interests you?
Guy Kawasaki: Three generations ago, my family was in Japan and yours was–or was it two generations ago–your family was still in Eritrea and I want to know: how did it go down? You’re now on the East Coast of the United States.
Haben Girma: I live in California! Where did you get the idea that I’m on the East Coast?
Guy Kawasaki: Oh, I assumed you were stuck in Massachusetts because he went to Harvard Law School.
Haben Girma: Come on! Deaf-blind people can travel. Where did he get the idea that I’d be stuck in Massachusetts for the rest of my life?
Guy Kawasaki: All right. Can you just take me back a generation into Eritrea and bring me to the United States?
Haben Girma: Absolutely. But going forward, Guy, please better questions. Put more thought into your questions!
Guy Kawasaki: Okay, good.
Haben Girma: My mother was born in Asmara, the capital city of Eritrea. My dad was born in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia. It was a completely different world back then. The two countries had about a thirty-year war. Right now, in 2021, there’s a completely different situation.
The two countries seem to be aligned in a war against a region in northern Ethiopia, and it’s a six-month ongoing humanitarian crisis in northern Ethiopia right now. My parents traveled to the United States. My mom came as a refugee going through Sudan, and I was born in California in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Then I went to college at Lewis and Clark in Portland, Oregon. After that, Harvard Law School in Massachusetts. When I graduated, I immediately left. Guy apparently is very surprised by this, but I don’t like snowy winters, so I left Massachusetts.
Guy Kawasaki: You definitely pass the IQ test there. Get out of the snow. Yes.
Haben Girma: And let me take the time to point out that IQ tests are ridiculous and meaningless. It’s one person’s idea of intelligence. It’s a very narrow idea of intelligence. There’s so much different variation on what it means to be intelligent, and we need to embrace that diversity.
Guy Kawasaki: Okay. At least I didn’t say you passed the LSAT.
Haben Girma: We won’t mention the LSAT.
Guy Kawasaki: To show you how little I know that, which clearly, I’ve been demonstrating already, what’s the proper and acceptable vernacular? Is quote, unquote “disability,” the right word?
Haben Girma: My recommendation is to always ask people because everyone has different takes on this. Some people think disability is a dirty word and feel ashamed and they will do everything they can to avoid saying the word. They will say “special needs,” “differently-abled,” and other extreme linguistic efforts to avoid saying the word disability. For me, I associate the word disability with civil rights–Americans with Disabilities Act.
It’s not “Americans with Special Needs Act,” so there is a stigma associated with the word disability. It’s the stigma that’s the problem. The word itself is not the problem, and more advocates today are celebrating disability pride. That word disability connects us to civil rights and connects us to other disabled people and builds this community of disabled people across disability community.
So deaf-blind, people who use wheelchairs, people with psychiatric disabilities, it’s incredibly diverse: different races, different ethnicities, different languages. So if you use “hashtag disability” on Twitter, you’ll find a variety of different voices.
Guy Kawasaki: So do you think the word disability is tied to civil rights as opposed to charity, empathy, or sympathy?
Haben Girma: Empathy is a good thing. Charity has its place in society. Disability should not always be a tied to charity. I argue disability is that opportunity for innovation. If you can’t do something one way, find another way to do it. And that other alternative way of doing things can benefit, not just disabled people, but also non-disabled people, and who knows what exciting innovations you’ll find that moves our entire society forward.
Guy Kawasaki: So if someone said to you, “I empathize with you,” –first of all, is it possible for someone to empathize with you who has sight and hearing? And secondly, can it not be said that empathy is feeling sorry as opposed to literally empathizing?
Haben Girma: Let’s do a test case. So Guy, you read my book. How do you feel?
Guy Kawasaki: I feel admiration. It’s not empathy. It’s not sympathy. It’s not charity. I feel admiration.
Haben Girma: Why do you feel admiration?
Guy Kawasaki: Because I like to consider people’s accomplishments based on what they had to overcome.
Haben Girma: I am going to step in here and add that there’s this common thing of framing disability experiences as overcoming the disability. And I want the world to know that, for me, I have not had to overcome my disability. I’m still disabled. I’m still deaf-blind.
The biggest barrier for me has been ableism. Ableism is the widespread practice of framing disabled people as inferior to non-disabled people. So for example, my disability does not stop me from practicing law. A big part of law is reading. I can read in Braille. Reading in Braille gives me access.
There are computers and software that quickly convert printed to Braille. So blindness is not the problem, but when institutions like courthouses refuse to provide materials in accessible, readable formats, that becomes the barrier. I have the ability to read, but when society puts out content that’s inaccessible, that’s the barrier.
Guy Kawasaki: But you had to and continue to have to overcome those barriers.
Haben Girma: Yes. I have to overcome ableism, which is not what society traditionally frames the disability experience. Usually, it’s framed as the disabled person has to overcome their own disability to be successful. But for me, my disability has not been my barrier. It’s ableism that’s been my barrier.
I know you like surfing, and you’ve shared many surfing stories. I read your memoir, by the way, and I know you were surfing in Santa Cruz which is where I first learned to surf. But when I first started and I was talking to different surf schools, they would say, “We’ve never heard of a deaf-blind surfer. We don’t know if we can teach you. We’ve never heard of a deaf-blind surfer.”
Then I found one school that said, “Let’s figure this out.” Surfing is a tactile experience–You’re feeling the water; You’re riding the waves. It’s very physical. So the instructor took the time to figure out, “How do we make this accessible? What can we change? What can we teach?” That’s inclusion.
So I hope more people in society from surf schools to tech developers learn to treat disability as an opportunity for innovation. If you’re not sure how to do something, or you’ve never heard of a disabled person doing a specific activity, that’s an opportunity to deepen your understanding of that field.
Guy Kawasaki: How do you feel when people tell you that you are inspiring?
Haben Girma: If people tell me I’m inspiring, I ask them, “What are you inspired to do?” Inspiration is an emotion. If it leads to action, excellent! Sometimes, non-disabled people tell disabled people they’re inspiring when in fact it’s a disguise for pity. They’re feeling uncomfortable and awkward around the disabled person so they just blurt out, “You’re inspiring!”
They’re not thinking of changing any of their behaviors. They’re just trying to say something because they’re feeling awkward and uncomfortable. That’s not helpful. If you’re feeling awkward and uncomfortable, take a moment to figure out why–what are the assumptions you’re making?
What questions can you ask to clarify the situation? If you’re not sure what to say, ask, “How do you identify? What can I do to assist?” That’s how we grow and learn. So if you do find someone inspiring, connect that emotion to action. I’m inspired to learn surfing. I’m inspired to make my website accessible.
Guy Kawasaki: Okay. While we’re on surfing, I’m still in Santa Cruz so if you ever want to surf again, I guarantee you that I can find the right people to make this happen. It would be quite a fun thing to do, so just let me know.
Haben Girma: I didn’t know you’re still in Santa Cruz! I love Santa Cruz! So the organization that first took me surfing is called, “Ride a Wave.” They’re based in Santa Cruz and it’s a group of volunteers that does tandem surfing. They focus on kids with disabilities and they will take kids out on tandem boards–kids with different kinds of disabilities, mobility disabilities.
They have tandem boards with seats on them. So if someone can’t stand, they can sit and still experience the process of being out on the water and surfing. For so many people, the beach is not accessible and communities don’t do the work of creating ramps down to the beach or having support systems so that you can go and enjoy this rare and precious part of our planet.
Ride a Wave is an amazing organization, and there are other great groups that are working to make beaches accessible.
Guy Kawasaki: A very hypothetical question: If we went back in time and that food services guy at the Lewis and Clark cafeteria had immediately emailed you the menu, do you think the arc of your life would be different?
Haben Girma: So for people who don’t know, in my memoir, there’s a story of an inaccessible cafeteria at college that moves me to becoming a civil rights lawyer. There have been so many barriers throughout my life and experiencing those barriers was really frustrating. And at college, when I first started at college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life.
“Could I go into computer science and mathematics?” That was my original plan to major in computer science and mathematics. There were so many barriers, I chose to highlight the cafeteria story in my book. If that hadn’t happened, another barrier would’ve sparked me toward law school.
Guy Kawasaki: Just tactically, can you explain how you were a law student?
Haben Girma: So people first need to understand that before I was a law student, I was a college student. Before I was a college student, I was a high school student. So I had many, many years to practice my learning techniques and study techniques so that they could be polished enough to work while at the Harvard Law School environment.
When I was in first grade, I started learning to read Braille and then I improved my Braille skills over time. First, it was hard-copy paper Braille, then Braille displays came out and you can instantly have Braille on your fingertips.
I’ve been using these real computers. The specific one I have is called a BrailleNote Apex by Humanware. It’s old! It’s about eleven years old, which is old for tech these days. It still works and I will keep using it until it stops working.
There are about a hundred different kinds of these Braille displays–some smaller, some larger, and they bring Braille right at your fingertips. For communication, I have one of these paired with a keyboard, so someone can type on a keyboard and what they write appears on the Braille computer.
So if I’m chatting with classmates, friends, that’s one form of communication. I had interpreters in class who were relaying what was being said and also what was being written on the board. Content like handouts textbooks was all provided to me in accessible formats like Microsoft Word files and my Braille computer could immediately convert those into Braille in my fingertips.
So I had all these different tools. The main thing is that the school was willing to investigate and discuss, “What are the different ways we can present information so that you have full access to it?” For most of its history, Harvard was not willing to do that. Helen Keller wanted to go to Harvard, and back then, Harvard only admitted men. Over time, the community changed and opened its doors to women, people of color, disabled people.
So Harvard has put up many arbitrary barriers over the years. Some of those barriers have come down. That school still has more work to do, and all of society is still has more work to do to be fully accessible.
Guy Kawasaki: Do you view your success as—well, do you view it as you’re proof that the system works or do you view it as it was so difficult that it proves that the system is not working?
Haben Girma: Which system?
Guy Kawasaki: Let’s just focus on the American education system and ableism in general. Should there be more of you, examples like this, or so that some would say the glass is half empty or is it, “Look I succeeded. It was even possible. I could not have done this in another place. So I’m a success story and it proves that the system works.”
Haben Girma: So the American education system is incredibly broken. I was very lucky to go to a school where there were teachers willing to do the work of removing ableism, removing barriers. If I had gone to a school one city over, chances are I would have probably failed high school and I doubt I would have ever gone to college.
I’d probably be among the many disabled people who are unemployed and underemployed. I know many deaf-blind students who tried going through the education system in California and the schools refused to provide books in Braille. And because they didn’t have access to books–books are so critical to learning, yet so many schools deny access to books.
Only about 10% of blind students learn Braille. Most schools do not teach blind students Braille. So there’s so many barriers in the United States education system. My story is an example of what could happen if the barriers are removed, but for the most part, those barriers are still there.
Guy Kawasaki: Can you give us an overall assessment of in 2021 where we are in terms of ableism?
Haben Girma: We’re in a terrible place! It’s depressing. But during the pandemic, there’ve been so many stories of experts saying how we need to sacrifice the lives of disabled people. If there’s a shortage of health resources, then disabled people, do they even have good quality of life?
They’ll go to the back of the line of resources if there’s a shortage on resources. This has been coming up in many States throughout the United States, and disabled lives have been lost because of ableism. The assumption that our lives are not valuable. And this assumption exists in our healthcare system, and it’s come up again and again during the pandemic.
Guy Kawasaki: This is a rare moment of silence for me but…are you kidding me?! Who could–by what logic is a disabled person’s life not as valuable as any other person’s life? Walk me through—yeah, you probably don’t want to–obviously you don’t agree but what kind of thought–train of thought–that may be giving them too much credit, how could you arrive at such a conclusion?
Haben Girma: People who have this point of view, it’s hard for me to explain since I don’t agree with it, but it seems to come from a place of fear. So for example, people have told me, “Gosh, if I were deaf and blind, I’d kill myself. There’s no way I would live like that.”
Guy Kawasaki: Oh, my God, are you kidding me?!
Haben Girma: No, I’m not kidding. This is something a lot of disabled people hear over and over again. And it comes from a place of fear, assuming that all the things you love and all the things that bring you joy would disappear. If you could not walk or could not see or lost one of your other abilities. Lots of disabled people, however, come up with alternative solutions–they find ways to do the things that bring them joy.
Humans are inherently adaptive. We adapt, but if you’re only coming from a place of fear, you’re not thinking of adaptation and alternative techniques, you’re just operating and speaking with fear.
Guy Kawasaki: I interviewed a woman from Nigeria, and in the course of that, I learned a great Nigerian insult which I would suggest is a good response to someone who says something like that, and the Nigerian insult is that, “If I wanted to commit suicide, I would climb to the height of your stupidity and jump to the level of your intelligence.” So you can use that.
Haben Girma: My instinct is not to try to insult people but to try to guide them away from their fear.
Guy Kawasaki: You’re a better person than me.
Haben Girma: Let’s not compare. You have things in talents that I don’t have.
Guy Kawasaki: Just a bit of post-interview information. The Oscars were being awarded just around the time that I did the interview. One of the films, Feeling Through, is about a handicapped person and his relationship with a teenager. Haben recorded a video with very strong opinions about this film. That’s what this question is about.
Has the director of Feeling Through reached out to you?
Haben Girma: Yes. He reached out in 2018 before the film was created and he reached out specifically to ask me to help fundraise for the film. I looked at the website for the film. I read the transcript for the trailer, and I told him, “I’m concerned that this is sending harmful messages. Would you please reconsider?”
And the response was very defensive and they went ahead and created a film that turned out way worse than I expected.
Guy Kawasaki: Oh, my God. There’s, like, a lot of show-stopping moments in this particular episode. So that’s difficult for me to wrap my head around. Now, as I understand it, what’s fundamentally the problem with that film is that it depicts a disabled person who, in it, is using a white cane, and despite using the white cane, trips on something and then goes to a store and is so totally helpless that he has to hand his wallet to the stranger, which you would never do.
And then the stranger is, I guess, the smart person who can buy stuff because the disabled person can’t. So is that the gist of the things that are wrong in portraying a disabled person in that film.
Haben Girma: So the film Feeling Through has received a lot of praise from everyone from the New York Times to being nominated for an Oscar. And it features a sighted-hearing, black teen helping a deaf-blind man. However, if you actually watch the film or read the transcript, the disabled man is taken advantage of.
So he’s taken advantage of in multiple ways. The sighted-hearing teen steals money from him. The sighted-hearing teen takes his notebook, opens it, and reads through it while the man’s asleep. There are private messages in this notebook. Imagine someone taking your phone when you’re asleep and reading through your private text messages. It’s very invasive.
And this film is told from the teen’s–from the side of hearing teen’s perspective. The audience is asked to have compassion for the sighted-hearing teen, and there’s no justice for the disabled man who has been stolen from and his privacy has been invaded. There are more things that are horrible with this, but it’s deeply disturbing to me that The New York Times says this film is a “window” into the largely unknown world of deaf blindness.
It’s not a window into our world. How this guy handles money, walks with a cane, interacts with people, that does not represent deaf-blind people, but most sighted-hearing people watching the film will think, “Oh, that’s what deaf blindness is like,” and that’s terrifying.
Guy Kawasaki: I am flabbergasted that the director actually–first of all, credit to him that he asked you in advance, but then, what would go through his brain that you told him this is all wrong and he proceeded? His intentions were good, probably–Hopefully.
Haben Girma: I can’t speak to his internal thoughts or feelings. All I can say is he asked me to help with the fundraising. He actually didn’t ask for my feedback on the messages of the film. I gave him that feedback anyway, and it seems like it was just disregarded.
Guy Kawasaki: And so now, God forbid, it wins an Oscar and millions of people watch it and that’s just more inaccurate information out there about this.
Haben Girma: What really bugs me is that people are already concerned for our safety. There’s this fear that people are going to take advantage of us. And this film features a sighted-hearing teen stealing from and taking advantage of a deaf-blind man and there’s no justice. There are no consequences for stealing from a deaf-blind man.
What is that teaching society? Is there going to be an increase in crime now after that film, now that film is out there.
Guy Kawasaki: Let’s get out of that cesspool. What would you like changed in the ADA?
Haben Girma: Don’t mess with my ADA. That’s my civil rights law. And people have discussed changing it over the years and those conversations usually result in bills, where if you actually read the bills, they would reduce the effectiveness of the ADA. So if anyone talks about changing the ADA, I immediately get suspicious.
Guy Kawasaki: But I asked you, what would you like changed? Not what other people like you, how would you make it better?
Haben Girma: So there’s an assumption in the tech community that the ADA does not apply to technology websites, apps, robots. That’s not true. The ADA was passed in 1990. The internet as we know it, didn’t exist the way we think of it back in 1990, however, the law was written to be broad and evolve with the society.
They’ve already been multiple cases applying the ADA to modern tech and I worked on one of those cases. I worked on National Federation of the Blind versus Scribd. Blind readers wanted access to books and documents on the Scribd library. And originally, Scribd argued that they thought they didn’t have to make their library accessible.
My team disagreed. It went to court and the judge ruled that the ADA does apply to online businesses like Scribd.
Guy Kawasaki: Just for clarity, people are listening to this. You’re talking about S C R I B D, right? That’s the plaintiff in this one.
Haben Girma: Defendant!
Guy Kawasaki: Excuse me, defendant. I only went to law school for ten days. What can I say?
Haben Girma: That is your excuse for everything, isn’t it, Guy?
Guy Kawasaki: It also has empowered me, but yes, you could make that case, but wait, I refuse to let you off the hook on this. There is nothing that you would do to the ADA to make it better?
Haben Girma: So the ADA made a promise that just disabled people are equal and deserve full access to society. That promise has not been fulfilled. That fault does not lie with the law. The fault lies on all the different businesses that fail to comply with the ADA. The burden is on plaintiffs, like the National Federation of the Blind, to bring these cases and it’s exhausting to have that burden.
It’s so much easier if the businesses choose to make their services accessible, rather than waiting for lawsuits. There are over a billion disabled people around the world–that’s a huge market. So if you invest and making your business accessible, you’ll reach more people. You’ll tap into over a billion potential consumers, potential listeners, larger audience. So it’s in your best interest to invest in accessibility.
Guy Kawasaki: Let’s suppose that there are people who are listening to this and they’re totally relating to what you’re saying because they have a quote unquote disability, or somehow they’re having to overcome external factors. The problem is not them. It’s something external. What is your advice to them?
Haben Girma: So you’re asking what is my advice to disabled people who are struggling with ableism? Is that the question?
Guy Kawasaki: Yes.
Haben Girma: So if you are out there, living with a disability and struggling with ableism, my advice is to make sure you take breaks for yourself, figure out what are the things that bring you joy, take breaks to recharge, and then come back to the fight for justice. It’s exhausting work to continue fighting ableism.
It feels like we’re swimming in it all the time. Every day, there are new barriers. So a lot of people are trying to get vaccines during the pandemic. A lot of the vaccine registration websites are inaccessible to blind people. So even just trying to get a vaccine, you come up with another barrier. So take breaks.
Recharge builds community, have allies who can step in and fight for you if you’re too tired and overwhelmed with all the barriers to do the fighting and build up your skills. Study the ADA. Study advocacy skills. Keep learning from activists who have been working on this for many, many years.
Guy Kawasaki: Do you have any recommended reading? When people ask me about writing or being an entrepreneur, I always tell them to read a book by Brenda Ueland called, If You Want to Write, so that’s the source of much of my courage and creativity. Do you have such a book or any resource that has been just a cornerstone of your success?
Haben Girma: I’m not sure I have a book like that. My recommendation for people interested in learning about disability justice, read a book called Disability Visibility. It’s a collection of short stories and articles from disabled people. One of my articles is also in the back of Disability Visibility, edited by Alice Wong.
I also recommend reading my book. It’s a memoir called, Haben: The Deaf-Blind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law. And people always say to me, “You overcame your disability to go to Harvard Law School!” Nope, I didn’t. It was Harvard that had to overcome their ableism to make their school more accessible.
And I introduced people to ableism through the book.
Guy Kawasaki: So the important message to hammer through there is, that the problem is not on your side, it’s on Harvard’s side, or it was on Harvard’s side.
Haben Girma: Harvard still has more work to do. Harvard and MIT were sued for not making their videos accessible to deaf people. They were relying on Google’s automatic captions, which were full of errors, and that’s not accessible if you have to try to puzzle through a document littered with so many errors. It made no sense. Add professional captions to videos, especially when you’re institutions like Harvard and MIT.
So yes, they still have more work to do to remove barriers, and all of society. From health organizations putting up inaccessible vaccine websites to companies working on autonomous delivery robots. All of that should be accessible.
Guy Kawasaki: This next question is brought to you by the reMarkable Tablet Company. The reMarkable tablet is a single purpose device. It helps you take notes. And it does this by forcing you to focus on taking notes. You can’t check your email. You can’t check social media. You can’t look at websites. You can only focus, focus, focus, focus.
How do you do your best and deepest thinking?
Haben Girma: Well, the thinking happens in my head and I don’t need to be in a certain place or a certain kind of environment to do my thinking. So where I do my deepest thinking is inside my head.
Guy Kawasaki: And there are no conditions that foster the best and deepest thinking and you just turn it on anywhere?
Haben Girma: I have the ability to turn off the outside world. I know a lot of people struggle to be able to do that. It’s one of my gifts.
Guy Kawasaki: I would say that’s a treasure. I actually came up with one more question, which is a question that you pose to me so that I know I should ask it, which is: What can I, or what can a listener do to help?
Haben Girma: If you feel inspired by this podcast and conversation, take time to study your community, your business, your organization–identify barriers and work to remove those barriers. So for podcasts, one of the biggest barriers is a lot of podcasts that don’t have transcripts. I can’t hear the audio, but I can read the transcript.
So my ask for people who create podcasts include a transcript. Do you do that, Guy?
Guy Kawasaki: I do one, and I will fall on the sword here and tell you what I was thinking. So I did some, and it’s a lot of work. The automatically translated ones are not that great, especially when they come to proper nouns. And so we did one and we figured out it took about, oh, five or six hours per hour of actual podcast, and not that many people were using it.
So I questioned whether I should do it, and I know you’re going to condemn me now, but that was what the thinking was. But now I do, I do provide something, yes.
Haben Girma: So my response to that is, as an entrepreneur, you’ve identified a problem. The services that exist to me to convert audio into text, it’s littered with so many errors. How can we make it faster and more efficient? Because this is a service that should be out there.
And there are people working on this, but how can we make it better? Who’s doing it best? Has it changed since the last time you checked it out?
Guy Kawasaki: I’ll check. We’ll see, but let’s just say that preparing for this interview and actually doing the interview has certainly heightened my awareness of my shortcoming in this area.
Haben Girma: Yeah. So there are lots of shortcomings in this area and opportunities to help this area grow and make it better.
Guy Kawasaki: You got anything else to add? Because this has been quite enjoyable, actually, and this is going to be the only podcast where we’re not going to remove the sounds of typing and extraneous noise because it’s part of the context and part of the fabric of this episode. Usually, we spend so much effort trying to eliminate background noise, but this one it’s part of the deal. Actually, it adds value.
Haben Girma: Thank you for recognizing that! Some people might feel ashamed and try to hide the things that make them seem different, but they provide more character and ambiance and personality. So thank you for recognizing that!
Guy Kawasaki: I also I want to thank whoever is doing that because that’s an empowering technology, if you will.
Haben Girma: The keyboard itself is very basic and nothing special about the keyboard. The Braille computer is pretty neat. It’s old. And, personally, I’m frustrated with the lack of innovation in the Braille hardware industry. I wish there were more people working in this field so that the devices would be smaller and lighter and more powerful, but that’s another conversation.
Guy Kawasaki: So whoever is typing out there, I just want to express my appreciation for your efforts today.
Haben Girma: Thank you!
Guy Kawasaki: This is another inside story: When Haben visited the White House, she couldn’t take her usual escort up to the podium. The White House forced her to work with someone. That someone was a U.S. Air Force officer.
He’s not the guy from the U.S. Air Force, is he?
Haben Girma: No, no, no, definitely not. I hope he’s still working for the Air Force.
Guy Kawasaki: I was just amazed that whoever was the person telling you that, “No, you can’t take your person up there with you and it’s got to be one of us.” I don’t understand, what’s the big deal? If this is how it works, if this is better for her, let her do it. What is the big deal?
Haben Girma: Yeah, that made no sense to me. The White House works in mysterious ways.
Guy Kawasaki: And that was the Obama White House. Imagine–well, I don’t know if you would’ve gone to the Trump White House but we won’t get into that. You probably don’t like Big Macs so you probably wouldn’t have gone, but that’s a different discussion.
Haben Girma: Trump? Who’s Trump? Thank you for the great conversation, Guy!
Guy Kawasaki: I hope that Haben’s story inspired you as much as it inspired me. Inspired you to support the one billion people with disabilities; Inspired you to support laws and regulations that will make the world a more equal place, and inspired you to see the awesome potential of disabled people.
An action item that came out of this episode for me is a commitment to creating high-quality transcripts. So for the past few weeks, I hope you’ve noticed that the quality of our transcripts has significantly improved.
I’m Guy Kawasaki. This is Remarkable People. My thanks to Mitch Jackson for making me aware of Haben, and for even helping me make the interview happen. My thanks to Jeff Sieh and Peg Fitzpatrick for making another remarkable episode of Remarkable People. Until next time, mahalo and aloha!