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Haben Girma and disability rights

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In her keynote for the 2017 American Alliance of Museums Conference, disability rights advocate Haben Girma tells us that mainstream narratives and stories sometimes say that her life, as the Black disabled daughter of refugees, does not matter.

However, she chose to take her story in her own hands and affirm that her life does matter. She believes that when it comes to disabilities, choosing alternative techniques of expression allows people to access information in a different way. These alternative ways of telling stories are of equal value as those used by mainstream society. Girma explains that:

“a lot of people read books with their eyes, and print. I found that I can read books through braille, by using my fingers. Walking around I can use a guide dog. Maxine is my guide dog. She’s been trained to guide around obstacles. I’ve been trained to use a white cane. I salsa dance. I can’t hear the music, but I can feel the beat through the people I dance with.”
According to Girma, most people choose not to tell these important stories. She reminds us that as museum professionals we are the ones who often choose which stories are presented to the public. When we decide to highlight stories of disability, we help the community and others to see these stories as important and of equal value to mainstream ones.
During her speech, she also talks about Hellen Keller, who was a deaf-blind woman and women’s rights and disability rights activist. Girma tells us that people often choose to reduce Keller’s story to that of a woman who succeeded despite her disabilities. She stresses the point that disability has never held anyone back. It is in fact the barriers created by people and society what hold people with disabilities back. It is up to us to remove those barriers so people with disabilities can do what they want to do. If we want to shatter glass ceilings, we need to start by taking the small steps to make our own communities inclusive. Girma asks museum professionals some very important questions:
“Which stories do we elevate? What do we believe about access and inclusion?”
These small choices, she tells us, can make a huge difference. The dominant story of disability is that of challenge and overcoming. However, she believes that disability is about opportunities for innovation and growth.
Girma also reminds us that museums have the responsibility to go against those narratives that reduce disability only by overcoming barriers. As institutions in service of society we must also present disability as a force that drives innovation. She uses the example of the first typewriter, invented by Pellegrino Turri, who was motivated by his desire to communicate with his blind friend Countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzano.
She also talks about how deaf communities around the world have been innovating and creating different forms of sign languages so that they can communicate with each other. She closes her talk by an active call for museums to think about the ways in which they can contribute to creating spaces for communication and knowledge transfer that can work for persons with disabilities. In Girma’s words:
Museums are great spaces to explore all the different ways we can communicate information. Touch is a powerful form of communicating information. We have a photo from a museum in Madrid, and this museum has a tactile sculpture of the Eiffel Tower. When I was 22 years old, I went to Madrid on vacation, and I learned what the Eiffel Tower feels like for the first time. All my life I’d heard about it, but often it’s only portrayed in pictures, in movies, and not until I visited that museum in Madrid did I actually feel what it feels like. I’d love to see more museums providing information in physical formats. This is your choice. You have the power to elevate more stories, and when you highlight information in multiple formats, touch, visual, audio, you share stories with even more populations.

Over to you

When was the last time you saw a story about disability framed as a drive for innovation?

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Creating Meaningful and Inclusive Museum Practices

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