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Haben Girma: The deafblind Eritrean-American activist who overcame seemingly insurmountable odds

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Haben Girma is an inspirational Eritrean-American who overcame enormous hurdles to become the first deafblind graduate of Harvard Law School. She has released a self-titled book about her incredible life story, which took her from isolation to the world stage.

Haben Girma is the first deaf-blind person to graduate from Harvard Law School and is an advocate for equal opportunities for people with disabilities. The Eritrean-American’s epic journey starts five years before she was born, when her mother trekked for two weeks to Sudan at the time when Eritrea went to war with Ethiopia. Girma told the Legal Secretary Journal that her mother walked at night “to try to avoid the different military groups fighting in that area”.

Five years later, Girma was born in California to the opportunities that the United States affords people with disabilities. In the United States, disability civil rights laws provides opportunities, while the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) bans discrimination based on disability. 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.

According to the journal, Girma became a lawyer in part to increase access to specialised technology, books and digital information for disabled people. She has become an internationally acclaimed accessibility leader, tirelessly advocating for the rights of people with disabilities. She applies her unique perspective and personal experiences, combined with her knowledge of the law, technology and sociology, to teach clients the benefits of fully accessible products and services.

Graduating as valedictorian in her year at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon with a Bachelor’s degree in sociology and anthropology, her good grades, glowing testimonials and unique personal statement saw her sail her through Harvard admissions to become the university’s first deafblind student.

In order to help her navigate life and education, Girma created tech inventions that include a keyboard setup that allows people to converse with her – the same setup that we used at our interview. To address her, you type a message on a regular wireless keyboard, which is connected to the braille display. The device translates the input into braille, which Girma can read.

“Many people frame technology as a cause of laziness,” she said. “While this stereotype might have emerged because it has a grain of truth, most millennials I know defy expectations and use technology to achieve new things.”

“My life is enhanced through technology,” she adds.

Read: Meet Haben Girma, Harvard Law’s first deaf-blind graduate

After becoming the first deaf-blind person to graduate from Harvard Law School in 2013, Girma went on to be named a White House Champion of Change by President Obama, received the Helen Keller Achievement Award and was included on the Forbes 30 under 30 and BBC ‘Women of Africa Unsung Heroes’ lists.

In a speech she made at the White House, Girma said, “People with disabilities succeed not by magic but from the opportunities afforded by America and the hard-won power of the ADA.”

Haben the book

Girma is a talented storyteller who helps people frame difference as an asset and choosing to tell her own pioneering story. More than two years of writing, editing and rewriting culminated in a self-titled book.

The book’s synopsis states, “Haben takes readers through a thrilling game of blind hide-and-seek in Louisiana, a treacherous climb up an iceberg in Alaska, and a magical moment with President Obama at the White House. Warm, funny, thoughtful and uplifting, this captivating memoir is a testament to one woman’s determination to find the keys to connection.

“Haben defines disability as an opportunity for innovation. She learned non-visual techniques for everything from dancing salsa to handling an electric saw. She developed a text-to-braille communication system that created an exciting new way to connect with people.”

Publishers Weekly gave the book an enthusiastic review, saying: “With wit and passion, Haben, a disability rights lawyer, public speaker and the first deaf-blind person to graduate from Harvard Law, takes readers through her often unaccommodating world… This is a heart-warming memoir of a woman who champions access and dignity for all.”

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