From being the first deaf-blind student to graduate from Harvard Law School to becoming an internationally acclaimed accessibility leader and lawyer, Haben Girma’s journey exemplifies grit, grace, and gravity.
Haben Girma’s story begins in Eritrea, Africa, where her mother Saba Gebreyesus grew up amidst the country’s war for independence from Ethiopia. Saba fled to America as a teenager seeking a better life and Haben was born in the year 1988 in California. Today, she is a 28-year-old deaf-blind advocate, full of gratitude for receiving the chance of growing up in the US. In this country she has found numerous opportunities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities and protects their rights.
These opportunities included access to education and technology – things that her elder brother, also born deaf-blind, didn’t get in Africa.
“When my grandmother took my brother to a school in East Africa, they told her that deaf-blind children can’t go to school. There was simply no chance. When my family moved to the US, and I was also born deaf-blind, they were amazed by the opportunities afforded by ADA…for my grandmother back in Africa, my success seemed like magic. For all of us here, we know that people will disabilities succeed not by magic but through opportunities,” Haben said in her speech at the White House during her introductory remarks for the 25th anniversary of ADA.
She attended mainstream public schools in Oakland and used to leave her classes for an hour every day to learn Braille. Later, Haben went on to do B.A. in Sociology/Anthropology from Lewis & Clark College in Portland. “The schools I attended as a child practiced inclusion. These were mainstream public schools with a diverse population. The teachers provided Braille instruction and all other accommodations I needed. All students deserve access. But a lot of schools today choose not to practise inclusion. We need to change this,” she says.
Speaking about her motivation to work in the field of law, Haben says her personal experiences of facing discrimination inspired her.
She wanted to equip herself with the power to take action. And one of the many things that propelled her towards advocacy was an incident that happened at the Lewis & Clark cafeteria.
“The cafeteria had about five different food stations and there was a menu at the door. People would read the menu and choose what they wanted to eat. The staff at the cafeteria offered to read me the menu but I couldn’t hear it. As a blind student, my first choice would be to read the menu in Braille. That takes time to produce, so we compromised. The staff agreed to email me the menu at the start of each meal, and I would be able to read it on my computer using a screen reader. It was a great idea, but the cafeteria constantly forgot to email the menus,” she narrated in a TEDx talk in Baltimore.
Instead of ignoring this as just another problem in a world that favoured people who can hear and see, Haben decided to do something. She put across her point of view to the manager and talked about her right to gain access to choices like any other student who was paying to eat there. But he didn’t pay heed to her requests, asked her to stop complaining, and told her to be more appreciative. “I don’t know about you, but if there is chocolate cake at station four and no one tells me, I don’t feel very appreciative. So, after several incidences of missed chocolate cake, I had had enough and tried something new.”
Haben exercised her rights under ADA, which states that businesses should make reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities.
Once she told the manager that she would sue if he didn’t send emails, he agreed. Other blind students who came to college the year after that, also benefitted from her fight.
This episode helped Haben realise the importance of enforcing civil rights laws. She applied for admission to Harvard Law School because she wanted access to the best resources and training. Today, she uses a digital Braille display device and a laptop screen reading software to communicate.
The wireless keyboard sends data via Bluetooth to the Braille display device and Braille characters form on the display that Haben reads using her fingers.
“The US government has a programme where they help people with disabilities prepare for employment. Technology was critical to my success, so the programme provided this equipment,” she says.
Haben is now working as an attorney at Disability Rights Advocates, a California-based disability civil rights law firm.
She is trying to help more people with disabilities gain access to technology by offering accessibility and diversity training, consulting, and professional speaking services. She also advises software and technology development companies to help them make their services more accessible.
Her first and most memorable case as a lawyer was to increase access to books for blind readers.
She considers it to be a rewarding experience because she was able to convince a digital library to make their content accessible – something that she yearned for as a student. “I’m working on making the world a better place. There are many ways for us to do this – teaching organizations that disability can also be a valuable asset, helping increase access to Braille, etc.,” she says.
Haben was also named a White House Champion of Change in 2013. Aside from her brilliant work as an advocate, she is an avid salsa dancer and also loves to surf and travel.
While she agrees that technology facilitates greater access to information, education, and employment, Haben is concerned that it is not the complete answer for people with disabilities. She feels the world also needs communities to practise inclusion. Even with the best technology, people will face discrimination as long as mindsets don’t change, she says.
She concludes with a message for the many students with disabilities in India who do not have access to advanced technology and are fighting to fulfil their dreams, “You have the power to influence your future. Keep learning, keep developing new ways to engage with the world, and keep believing that you have talents to share with the world.”
Haben will be speaking at the India Inclusion Summit to be held in Bengaluru on November 19. Register here to attend the event.