Can you imagine the difficulties you would face going through law school as a deaf person? The image in our heads is most probably one of us relying almost exclusively on our powers of sight to intake any information presented to us. Can you imagine, then, taking away the power of sight also? Now imagine that the law school in question is Harvard, noted as one of the top law schools in the world, regarded for both its remarkable academic excellence and prestigious previous alumni. This is the story of Haben Girma, a truly inspirational Eritrean-American woman who overcame these momentous hurdles and became the first deaf-blind graduate of Harvard Law School.
Haben’s extraordinary story began before she was born, with her mother’s decision to flee her home country of Eritrea, Africa, and make a refugee’s journey to the USA. Eritrea was at war with Ethiopia, fighting for independence; a war that lasted for 30 years. Haben’s mother trekked for two weeks to Sudan, “walking at night to try to avoid the different military groups fighting in that area.” At one point she slept in a tree surrounded by hungry hyenas.
Five years later, in California, Haben was born. In the United States, disability civil rights laws provided opportunities to Haben; she had a legal right to an education. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) bans discrimination based on disability and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) states that every child with a disability is guaranteed a free education that is tailored to their individual needs. In public schools in Oakland, she was educated alongside other students without disabilities, learning Braille and how to use a digital Braille device outside of her mainstream classes for an hour a day.
Haben appreciates the opportunities she has been afforded in the USA, and notes that her elder brother, also deaf-blind, did not receive the same fortuity that she did in their home country of Eritrea. Her elder brother had been turned away from every school that the family had approached and, in her words, a deaf-blind child “was a curse on the family” and certainly not someone you could educate.
Haben says that she became a lawyer in part to increase access to specialised technology, books and digital information for disabled people. Now Haben is internationally acclaimed as an accessibility leader, tirelessly advocating for the rights of people with disabilities. She applies her unique perspective and personal experiences, combined with her knowledge of law, technology and sociology, to teach clients the benefits of fully accessible products and services. This is a very worthwhile cause as people with disabilities represent the largest minority group in the world, with 15% of the Earth’s population experiencing some form of disability. By empowering such a large group of people within our society we allow for new insight, innovation and productivity to occur and for our collective social inclusion and attitudes towards difference to be positively altered.
Haben’s miraculous achievements have been recognised worldwide. She has earned accolades as a White House ‘Champion of Change’, a Forbes ’30 under 30 leader’ and a BBC ‘Women of Africa hero’. Haben has been featured extensively in media round the world, including the BBC, CBS, Forbes, MTV, the Washington Post, and many more. In July 2015 she met with President Obama to address the importance of accessible technology for disabled people.
Haben’s grandmother, who still lives in Africa, thinks it “seems like magic” that her granddaughter could not only graduate from Harvard Law School, but also work as a civil rights attorney. Haben, however, acknowledges that she only thrived due to the chances she was given in life; during a speech she made at the White House, she said “people with disabilities succeed not by magic but from the opportunities afforded by America and the hard-won power of the ADA." Haben’s determination highlights that despite physical challenges, a disability is no barrier to achieving academic excellence.