A deaf-blind attorney who made Business Insider’s 2013 list of the 20 most impressive Harvard Law students is now fighting for the rights of blind readers in a lawsuit against digital subscription reading service Scribd, seeking equal access for the blind.
Haben Girma made Business Insider’s 2013 list for her work advocating on behalf of people with disabilities. Now, at 26, she is continuing her efforts as a Skadden Fellowship Attorney with the nonprofit law firm Disability Rights Advocates. There, Girma is representing the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and blind Vermont mother Heidi Viens in a lawsuit against Scribd for allegedly depriving blind readers access to its online services in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Girma, deaf-blind since birth, fought on her own behalf for equal access as an undergraduate at Lewis and Clark College, where she clashed with dining hall staff who regularly failed to email her dining hall menus in advance so she could read them on her computer using special screen reading technology. “I told the manager that if he would not send emails consistently, I would sue. To tell you the truth, I had no idea how I would do that,” Girma said at a 2014 TEDxBaltimore event.
Business Insider followed up with Girma recently about the case against Scribd, which she considers her favourite since graduating from Harvard Law.
Scribd charges subscribers a monthly fee of $US8.99 for unlimited access to its collection of more than 40 million titles through its website and apps, as well as the opportunity to publish their own works through Scribd. But Scribd is not programmed to give access to blind readers, according to the plaintiffs’ July 29 complaint. That’s because it’s allegedly not designed for use with screen access software, which vocalizes visual information or displays it in braille for blind people to read.
The complaint alleges that Scribd discriminates against blind people by denying them full and equal access to its services in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
This case is one everyone who reads can relate to, Girma said. “I think it sounds like a great service, and I think just like everyone else in the world, when you hear about a great service and then you realise you can’t use it you’re disappointed and frustrated. And it’s not fair,” Girma told Business Insider in a phone interview this week with the help of an interpreter. “Everyone wants to read, which is one of the reasons I really like this case — everyone can relate to the need to read for fun, for work, for school.”
Her expertise in the case extends beyond her knowledge as an attorney to her personal experiences with her disability.
“I found that as someone who is blind and deaf I have specialised knowledge about the tools and services and needs of this community and I bring that knowledge to my work,” Girma said. “So that is an advantage I have over other lawyers and that is one thing that helps me in representing the National Federation of the Blind, that I have this knowledge about technology and techniques and the needs of the blind community.”
Girma attributes her success at Harvard and as a professional to the right attitude, training, and tools, which can allow all people with disabilities to compete equally with their nondisabled peers, if given equal access to informational and educational services like Scribd. “There have definitely been times in my life where I encountered something and I’m not sure exactly how I’m going to do it, but I adopt the attitude that I’m going to try to find a way to make this work,” she said. “And I think about tools, whether it’s braille or screen readers or a guide dog or a cane, to accomplish what I need to do.”
But Scribd’s inaccessibility to blind readers deprives them of the ability to compete equally with their nondisabled peers, the lawsuit alleges. “Scribd’s inaccessible reading services gratuitously exclude the blind from having access to information that is critical to education, employment, and community integration,” the complaint said.
Prior to the lawsuit, the NFB reached out to Scribd about its alleged inaccessibility but Scribd made no commitment to resolve the issue, according to the complaint, which cites iBooks as one example of a digital reading service that has been programmed with screen access technology allowing blind readers to independently access and choose titles.
“Scribd could potentially win thousands and thousands of new subscribers if they took the time to make their service accessible, and it could be very easy,” Girma said.
Business Insider reached out to Scribd for a comment on the lawsuit in its early stages. “We’re currently reviewing the allegations with our legal counsel in order to determine the appropriate next steps,” said Scribd CEO Trip Adler in his statement emailed to Business Insider.
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