“A lot of people with disabilities are tired of the word ‘inspirational'” says Haben Girma, the first deaf-blind person to graduate from Harvard Law School. “Some even take offense. The overuse has dulled its meaning.” Girma said. She wants you to see her story as one which inspires innovation and inspires new technology that brings people together— not just as “inspirational.”
The 30-year-old born in Oakland, California to Ethiopian parents who escaped Eritrea in 1983 during the country’s independence war, has become a deaf-blind advocacy bright star. She has spoken openly about deaf-blindness before a TED Talk audience, was crowned one of Forbes’ 30 under 30, and last year, she met with President Obama to discuss disability advocacy.
Her most memorable case was a lawsuit against a company for neglecting to provide mandated access for blind readers. Girma and her firm won the case.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ensures that all children with disabilities get free appropriate education that meets their unique needs. The American Disabilities Act (ADA) bans all discrimination against people with disabilities. Despite these laws and the fact that 1 in 10 people have a disability, the poverty rate for people with disabilities worldwide is 47%. One in three employers say that they do not hire people with disabilities because the cannot perform the required job tasks.
Girma’s accomplishments are impressive by any standard, yet they belie her communication challenges. Just the logistics of Girma’s daily life are a marvel. Oxygen describes communicating with her for an interview:
“She hears certain high-pitched frequencies, so in quieter environments, people – women mostly – can get close to her and speak with success, though she finds it exhausting and unreliable. Using touch, she communicates through sign language, for those who know it. For dense conversation, however, Haben prefers that people type on a keyboard that’s connected to a digital braille device. Typing signals the braille, which pulses into Haben’s fingers. Email, text, and other communications are similar: everything is connected to screen-reading software, which signals the braille.”
Sometimes she travels with an interpreter who transcribes what the successful lawyer and speaker says. Among her gifts, Girma’s voice is clear and her ideas are sharp. She uses a full scope of communication tools including her body language and facial expressions to convey her message of advocacy.
“You can’t be average. You have to be very bright,” Her friend Mary Fernandez, a World Blind Union delegate, who is blind told Oxygen. “You can’t just learn. We don’t have that luxury. Every step of the way we have to fight tooth and nail and be very persistent. Haben is persistent, and she’s particularly great at gaining visibility and saying, ‘Don’t forget I exist.’”
In a speech at the White House marking the 25th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 2015, Girma made it personal:
“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.”
Technology advances have made it easier for corporations and businesses to create accessible work environments. Where qualifications are a match, savvy companies should research available options to tap into this talent pool. There are many organizations that can ensure companies are prepared to support this endeavor. For more information about laws and options to ensure your company is accessible (and compliant), visit EARN – Employer Accessibility Resource Network for Disability Inclusion