In a world where physical impairment hinders height attainment, restricts some to the confines of their bedrooms, and renders others life-time liabilities, 31 year old Haben Girma has developed a powerful path to success, rooted in her belief that inclusion is a choice, thus changing the narratives of persons with disabilities.
On Tuesday she published her first book titled – Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard. The memoir is meant to give everyone else a chance to learn what it is like to navigate a world that wasn’t built with them in mind.
Born deafblind, the daughter of a refugee from Eritrea and an immigrant from Ethiopia, Haben Girma- an American disability rights advocate holds a BA from Lewis and Clark College is also the first deaf and blind student to graduate from Harvard Law School in year 2013.
At birth, Girma could see blurry shapes and hear carefully uttered words in quiet settings, but sadly, both abilities decreased with time. This led to her isolation growing up and explains reasons she avoided crowded places while growing up like skipping both her high-school prom and her college graduation.
With time she learnt courage as she faced off against a bull she couldn’t see and with the help of a tech-savvy friend, she conceived a wireless-keyboard system which enabled her follow lectures and have fun at parties.
Communicating with Ms. Girma involves typing into a wireless keyboard connected via Bluetooth to a Braille computer that she holds in her lap. She receives the words in real time through mechanical pins that pop up to form letters.
According to her she always received her coursework in Braille, but she learned early that she would need to work harder than her peers to be taken seriously. She excelled in school but nearly failed a class because she couldn’t hear when her teacher assigned homework.
With resilience and determination, Girma earned a full-tuition scholarship to Lewis & Clark College in Portland but struggled to get a job during the summer. Impressed by her great grades and recommendations, employers would call her in for an interview only to say upon meeting her, “We’re looking for a different fit”
For a deafblind girl from a little to write home background, Girma has done incredibly well for herself, fighting off low expectations, choosing to create her own pioneering story that has led to international acclaim.
In addition, Girma has earned accolades from a tidy list of world leaders (Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Angela Merkel, Justin Trudeau) for her efforts to further disability rights and as well earned a spot on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list
The deafblind girl who defines disability as an opportunity for innovation also helped achieve a legal victory in National Federal of the Blind v. Scribd, the second case to hold that the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to e-commerce.
Today, the 31 year old who offers accessibility and diversity training, consulting, and professional speaking services travels the world teaching the benefits of choosing inclusion and has her work has been featured in the Financial Times, BBC, Washington Post, NPR, and more. .
The story of Girma who has devoted her life subverting the presumption that disability is a tragedy or that people born unable to hear or see is somehow helpless or unteachable, this shows that we all have the power to advocate for positive change and that becoming a leader begins by role-modeling the change we need in this world.
Her insights help to expand our thinking, creating lasting, positive change among people and communities and revealed that indeed difference is an asset.