August 06, 2019

Haben Girma

The celebrated disability advocate on her fierce, funny memoir—and how inclusion enriches our world
Interview by
Haben Girma, the first deafblind graduate of Harvard Law School, answers some questions about her new memoir and about making education accessible for all people.
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Haben Girma was born deafblind in California, to refugee parents forced to flee war-torn Eritrea. While her mother and father struggled to cope as immigrants, Girma simply yearned to belong—“a deafblind girl in a sighted, hearing world.”

Today Girma speaks from a global stage, advocating for improved access to education and services for disabled people. We asked her some questions about her new memoir, Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law, and about making education accessible for all people.

As a child, you confronted a bull. As a teen, you helped build a schoolhouse in Mali. As an adult, you slid down an iceberg in Alaska. To what or whom do you attribute such fierceness when it comes to your risk-taking?
Seeing is knowing for most people. I can’t sit on the sidelines and watch the world. I could settle for not knowing, or I could choose to experience the world. My sense of curiosity urges me to approach a bull, sift sand for bricks, climb an iceberg and learn everything I can about our surprising world.

Your parents were refugees from the besieged country of Eritrea. You were born with disabilities that made you intensely aware of exclusion: Your diminishing hearing and vision often left you feeling isolated from your peers. How do you relate to your parents’ experience, and how has that helped your own advocacy work?
I grew up listening to the stories of my parents’ struggles during the war. They paved a path through injustice, finding their way through thousands of unknowns. Their stories inspired me to pave my own path as a deafblind woman in a sighted, hearing world.

“The biggest barrier [to inclusivity] is society’s underlying assumption that people with disabilities are incompetent and do not add value to society.”

You once saw your parents’ natural protective instincts as a hindrance to overcome. What advice would you give today, as an adult, to parents of a child who is disabled—and to the child?
Parents, please give your kids the freedom to explore their world, make mistakes and develop into confident adults. Whenever you feel yourself about to utter, “You can’t . . .” pause and give yourself time to research the question. Help your child find solutions.

Kids with disabilities, build friendships with other people with disabilities, including adults. You’ll learn new alternative techniques and advocacy strategies from each other.

Your sense of humor infuses your book. You relate how you learned in childhood that laughter inspires warmth and makes communication easier all around. Have you always had this lightness of heart, or is it something you’ve developed?
Many of my family members express love through joking and teasing. When I started joking back, their laughter delighted me. Since then I’ve actively worked on developing my comedic skills, and recently I’ve been taking improv workshops, too.

You employ a cane, a Seeing Eye dog and electronic technology as assistive tools. What are your hopes for the future of adaptive aids, and how can access to them be broadened?
Some of the most crucial assistive technologies, like Braille computers and power wheelchairs, are not affordable to the people who need them. I’m hoping that future innovations will bring down the cost of assistive tech.

At Harvard Law School, assistive technology and the school’s enlightened approach (providing interpreters, for example) helped you to succeed. Do you think it has become any easier for disabled students today? How can schools do more?
Overall, students with disabilities have greater access now than in the past. Many barriers still exist, though. Schools continue to buy inaccessible learning tools, and teachers continue discouraging disabled students who express interest in math and science. We need all schools to remove barriers so that disabled and nondisabled students can contribute their ideas and learn from each other.

When you are out with people, you ask them to describe in detail the environment you are in, as if, as one friend says, they are setting the scene for a book or movie. In doing that, they become more aware of their surroundings as well. Do you think this is one way to build community between people who are sighted and hearing and people who are disabled?
Disabilities invite people to become more aware of their surroundings. You might tap into senses you rarely pay attention to, like smell and touch. You may notice barriers in the environment, such as garbage cans blocking sidewalk access for wheelchair users. Spending time with someone who experiences a life different from your own will increase understanding and pave the way for meaningful relationships.

“Spending time with someone who experiences a life different from your own will increase understanding and pave the way for meaningful relationships.”

Your ambivalence about acquiring and training a Seeing Eye dog is likely something a sighted person would not consider. What advice would you give to blind or deafblind people when making that decision for themselves?
Blind people need to develop strong travel skills before training with a guide dog. Without travel skills, the blind person and dog will both end up lost. The dogs depend on their human partners to feed them, offer water and provide directions on how to get home. I love traveling with a guide dog and have encouraged many friends to apply to guide dog school. One must master cane travel first, though.

In your “Brief Guide to Increasing Access for People with Disabilities,” you offer clear advice about how not to marginalize disabled people and how to, instead, work together for creative solutions that can benefit the entire community. How do you think children can be sensitized and educated at an early age to be the empathetic, informed adults needed for such cooperation?
We can help children grow into empathetic adults by introducing them to diverse stories at an early age. We can also encourage kids to identify when someone might feel left out and teach them how to reach out and build friendships with kids who may feel marginalized.

In 2015, you met President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden at the White House, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). You were honored for your own work. What would you say to leaders today, to help ensure the ADA remains viable?
The promise of the ADA depends on enforcement. Leaders need to insist on the removal of barriers that have denied access for people with disabilities for far too long. In cases where stubborn institutions refuse to create inclusion, then leaders can employ the ADA to remove barriers through the legal system.

In your epilogue, you say that today your mission is to “help increase opportunities for people with disabilities through education-based advocacy.” As a public speaker on a global stage, what are you hoping for specifically as the results of your own advocacy?
Through my advocacy I hope to shift the dominant narrative from one where businesses think of disability entirely in terms of charity, if at all, to a world where businesses recognize that choosing inclusion drives growth and innovation.

What do you think are the biggest obstacles today to the inclusivity you seek for disabled people?
The biggest barrier is society’s underlying assumption that people with disabilities are incompetent and do not add value to society.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law.


Author photo credit: Sean Fenn

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By Haben Girma
ISBN 9781538728734

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