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.” As her vision and hearing continued to fade and her parents grew increasingly cautious, Girma fought for her independence. Against their wishes, she went to Mali to help build a schoolhouse, left home for college in Portland, Oregon, and moved across the country for Harvard Law School. Along the way, she found new ways to manage her disabilities, through technology, teamwork and self-education that included a “blindness boot camp.” Today Girma speaks from a global stage, advocating for improved access to education and services for disabled people. In her often hilarious and utterly inspiring memoir, Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law, she shares her trials and triumphs.
Things get off to a riveting start when, at the age of 7, Girma is left alone on a plane after her father is forcibly taken off the aircraft. She cannot hear what the flight attendant is saying, and her vision is limited to a few feet. Her terror is palpable. Later there is a confrontation with a bull she cannot see, learning to salsa dance in Mali to music she cannot hear with a partner who is but a blur, and more—much more. Yet by the book’s conclusion, she has graduated from Harvard Law School and become an internationally acclaimed advocate for accessibility, lauded for her work by President Obama at the White House in 2015.
While Girma’s narrative almost ends there (she adds a brief epilogue to bring her enthralled reader up to date), her mission continues. “A Brief Guide to Increasing Access for People with Disabilities” includes specific advice for the workplace and wisdom that comes from her own experiences of exclusion. “Disability,” Girma notes, “is part of the human experience.” Inclusion improves the world for everyone, she says, and she intends to make it happen.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our Q&A with Haben Girma.