In numerous interviews, Haben Girma has stated that she doesn't want to be called "inspirational." But it's hard not to use that word when describing the incredible achievements of the first deafblind graduate of Harvard Law School.
Girma was born in Oakland, California in 1988 to Eritrean parents who emigrated to the United States several years before her birth. She lost nearly all of her sight and hearing in early childhood. From a young age, Girma demonstrated the tenacity that would eventually lead her to become Harvard Law's first (and, so far, only) deafblind graduate. Thanks to the provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Americans with Disabilites Act (ADA), she flourished in mainstream public schools in Oakland, then attended Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, where an event occurred that set her on her journey to law school. Dissatisfied that the school's dining hall manager was resistant to distributing menus via email (which she could print out on a Braille reader), Girma invoked the "reasonable accommodation" clause of the ADA. The dining hall began sending out the menus regularly, benefiting not only Girma but also other blind students and sparking her interest in civil rights law.
Girma was later accepted to Harvard Law School, graduating in 2013. During her time as a law student, she also took part in extracurricular activities such as competing with the Harvard Ballroom Dance Team. Following her graduation, she began working for Disability Rights Advocates, a California civil rights firm.
So why doesn't she want to be called inspirational? Girms resists this term because it is often thrown around to describe disabled people without actually inspiring others to do anything. In Girma's view, there is very little that disabled individuals can't do. All that's needed are simple changes to break down existing barriers and make the world a more accessible place – and digital devices have made this easier than ever.
These days, Girma travels the world giving lectures that advocate for accessible technology, such as one talk at Google entitled "Bringing Helen Keller to Silicon Valley: Designing Technology with Accessibility in Mind."
More about Haben Girma:
- In 2015, Haben Girma introduced President Barack Obama at a White House ceremony honoring the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Girma and the president used a wireless keyboard and a digital Braille device to have a one-on-one conversation in real-time.
- Girma’s other achievements include interning at the U.S Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, receiving the Helen Keller Achievement Award, and earning a place on the Forbes “30 Under 30” list.
- In 2019, Haben Girma published a well-received memoir entitled Haben: The Deaf-Blind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law.
- Girma's wide-ranging interests include surfing, cycling, and rock climbing. Her guide dog Mylo is a constant presence by her side.