An in-depth chat with Harvard Law’s first deaf-blind graduate
Haben Girma has an impressive resume. The daughter of an Eritrean refugee, she is a magna cum laude graduate of Lewis & Clark College and Harvard Law School’s first deaf-blind graduate. Haben, who was named a White House Champion of Change in 2013, currently works as an attorney at Disability Rights Advocates. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng spoke to Haben via email about her courageous advocacy efforts.
In a BBC interview, you mentioned that when you first started at Harvard Law School, there were very few deaf-blind attorneys and you had to figure out a lot on your own? What were the biggest lessons you learned?
We’re our best advocates. If we want something to happen, it’s up to us to make it happen. Since I find myself serving as a pioneer in many areas, I’ve developed strong self-advocacy skills. Such skills benefit all of us.
How has your older brother, who is also deaf and blind, paved the way for you?
My elementary, middle, and high schools worked first with my older brother before working with me. He learned Braille and sign language before I did. My first sign language lessons were from my brother.
How has the availability of technology for deaf-blind people evolved in the past decade?
Technology has changed dramatically over the last two decades. Opportunities exist now that did not exist when I was born. Digital braille and screen readers are two examples of technology that have facilitated greater access for deaf-blind individuals.
You work at Disability Rights Advocates. Can you name a legal case where you felt like you made a significant difference in fighting for the rights of disabled people?
My work in National Federation of the Blind v. Scribd will make a large digital library accessible to blind readers.
Why was this case personally important to you?
Throughout my life I have had many experiences where I wanted to read a book but it was not accessible to me. I became a lawyer in part to help increase access to books and other digital information for persons with disabilities. Working on the Scribd case was personally and professionally rewarding.
What changes would like to see in government and civil society to better accommodate the needs and concerns of Americans with disabilities?
A study by the United Nations found that about 97% of websites around the world have access barriers. These digital access barriers perpetuate an information famine, limiting employment and educational opportunities for blind people around the world. Companies and governments around the world should design accessible digital services. To design an accessible website, companies should reference the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0, a set of technical standards for making websites accessible to people with disabilities. Companies can also design accessible mobile apps with the BBC Mobile Accessibility Standards and Guidelines.
You’re Eritrean-American, and you undoubtedly know about how many African cultures view children with disabilities as a curse. How do you think developing countries, particularly in Africa, can change attitudes and better support children with disabilities?
Negative cultural attitudes act as the biggest barrier to access for people with disabilities. We are all different in some way, and it’s the community as a whole that makes decisions regarding what types of differences are embraced or rejected. Communities thus have the power to choose to change their attitudes and design their shared spaces to be more inclusive. Sending positive images of disability through the media is one way communities can work to change negative attitudes.
How did your mother’s experiences as an Eritrean refugee shape how she raised you, and your own approach to life?
My mother and others in my family grew up during Ethiopia’s colonization of Eritrea. Though born in the US, the stories of Eritrean Freedom Fighters struggling for thirty years for independence played a central role in my childhood. Patience and resilience helped the heroes in these stories, and later I learned to use those traits in my own struggle for freedom.
What’s your biggest fear?
Fear fuels all the injustice in our world. Fear stands behind all the pain experienced by those marked as “others” by a majority group. Worst of all, fear freezes compassion that would otherwise build bridges between all our unique lives. Sometimes I fear fear’s power, but mostly I celebrate the growing number of people who recognize our shared humanity.
This article is available in the anniversary issue of Ayiba Magazine.
Image Credit: President Barack Obama waits with introducer Haben Girma, who is deaf and blind, in the Green Room prior to remarks during the Americans with Disabilities Act 25th Anniversary reception in the East Room of the White House, July 20, 2015. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.