Meet Haben Girma, the first deaf-blind graduate from Harvard School of Law and already a very accomplished civil rights advocate at the age of 28. Born in California, Haben is a first generation Eritrean American, her mother Saba having fled the nation in 1983 during the Eritrean war of independence. Saba walked to Sudan for two weeks during the night to avoid military groups. She even found herself sleeping in a tree as hungry hyenas stalked her. But she didn’t give up, and ultimately Saba was resettled in the US.
It is not difficult to see where Haben gets her fighting spirit. Haben was not deaf and blind from birth. She slowly went deaf and blind around the age of five. It was a gradual process that leaves her with vague memories of where and when she lost full function of her hearing and eyesight. Her mother took her to the best doctors, but they were unable to save her hearing and vision. Since they could not save her senses, they helped her to adapt.
Credit To the Americans With Disabilities Act
As an American, Haben had the advantage of finding access to education through the ADA. She is even more aware of the blessings this Act provides than most, as her deaf-blind brother had no educational access at all while he was growing up in Eritrea. Haben was not sent to a special school or ostracized as her disability progressed. She attended a mainstream public school in Oakland. She attended regular classes with the other students while learning braille and other new tools to keep her door of communication open with the world. Her brother helped her with her studies as well and was the first to teach her braille.
Haben says she was very lucky to go to a very good and inclusive school, even though she admits that grade school and high school were very difficult for her in some ways. Children didn’t know how to connect with her when she was in grade school, and in high school, classmates were “too busy being cool.” But she does not have hard feelings. Children take time to learn. Haben had much more fun in law school where her adult classmates were willing to reach out and make friends with her by utilizing her portable keyboard and digital braille technology to converse.
Inspiration Toward Legal Education
Inclusion wasn’t Haben’s only obstacle toward living a normal life, and one of these hurdles ended up convincing her that more needed to be done.
What was that hurdle?
While Haben was attending Lewis & Clark college in Oregon, she developed a system for deciphering the content of the food stations in the cafeteria by having the menu for each station emailed to her every day. This way, she could select something that she actually wanted to eat instead of simply taking whatever random item was put on the plate for her. It’s a simple right—to eat what we choose—yet Haben had to form a cooperative system with the cafeteria to do what the rest of us take for granted. Unfortunately, the menus didn’t always make it to her email. When she sent an email to complain about the problem, the manager’s response was “the cafeteria was very busy, that they were doing me a big favor, and that I should stop complaining and be more appreciative.” The rest is history.
Her Dream for People With Disabilities
Haben joined the ranks of Harvard’s elite graduates in 2013 and is now a disabilities advocate and lawyer, focusing largely on educational access. Haben says that although this technology costs money, it’s worth it. In the long run, those persons with disabilities will get a job and pay taxes. So that money will go back to the community.
She doesn’t want to be considered an inspiration for this cause, however. Her dream for people with disabilities is exactly the same as her desires for every other American. She wants people with disabilities to be judged for their actual talents, skills and character, not for the hurdles that they must overcome—just as every human should be judged for the content of their character, not the color of their skin.
Haben says, “I want to live my truth. I don’t want to live my life trying to prove to people that I can do whatever you can do. I want to focus on what do I aspire to do. I want to focus on what are my skills and how can I use these talents and skills to give back to the community.” Haben also says that some people are too shy to talk with her because they are slow typists, but she doesn’t want that to stop them from coming up to say hello. So don’t be shy about introducing yourself to Haben or asking for her help with an ADA issue.