Haben Girma is without a doubt the personification of the word inspiring. Born deaf and blind to an immigrant Mother, Girma had the odds stacked against her at birth.
However, through sheer hard work and an overdose of self-belief, Girma managed to overcome the barriers of race, gender, and disability to become the first deaf-blind graduate of the prestigious Harvard Law School.
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Girma was born in Oakland, California, in 1988 to an Eritrean Mother and Ethiopian father. Her mother fled Eritrea in 1983 at the height of the independence war ravaging the country at the time.
Growing up in California, Girma thrived academically in the U.S. school system, which recognizes the rights of people with disabilities through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
She also benefited from modern technology, such as a digital Braille device, which, she believes, contributed greatly to her success story. Girma also says her elder brother, who is also deaf and blind from birth and born in Eritrea, lacked access to the opportunities she was afforded.
“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 U.S. 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 with disabilities succeed not by magic but through opportunities,” Girma said in a speech at the White House to mark the 25th anniversary of ADA.
Watch Girma’s speech at the White House here:
In elementary school, Girma took special Braille classes alongside her regular school work, and at age 15, she took up volunteering work and traveled to Mali, West Africa, to build schools with the charity BuildOn.
She later went on to study Sociology/Anthropology at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, graduating magna cum laude. Girma then became the first deaf-blind student to attend and graduate from Harvard Law School, earning her J.D. in 2013.
Girma says she was motivated to study law due to the discrimination she experiences as a person with a disability.
Following her graduation from law school, Girma worked as an attorney with Disability Rights Advocates (DRA), a California-based disability civil rights law firm. At the DRA she worked on what she described as her first and most memorable case yet: helping to win a lawsuit brought against a company for failing to provide the required access for blind readers.
As a equal rights for people with disabilities advocate, Girma says she considers her work to be extremely rewarding since she is able to influence organizations and corporate bodies to make their content accessible to readers with disabilities.
“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.
Girma was named a White House Champion of Change in 2015, and in January 2015, she was appointed to the national board of trustees for the Helen Keller Services for the Blind.
Watch Girma’s Ted Talk here:
In addition to her work as a legal advocate, Girma is an avid salsa dancer and also loves the outdoors with surfing, travel, kayaking, and rock climbing.