Meet Haben Girma: The first-ever blind and deaf person to graduate from Harvard Law School

There are certainly no limitations to what black people can accomplish. Haben Girma is a living testament. The 34-year-old author, advocate, speaker, and disability justice lawyer became the first-ever deafblind graduate from the prestigious Harvard law school in 2013.

Let’s delve into the inspiring story of Haben Girma!

Haben Girma was born in Oakland, California in 1998. Her mother, Saba Gebreyesus was a refugee from Eritrea who fled the country to Sudan in 1983 during its war of independence against Ethiopia. Her father, Girma Kidane Adgoy was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Haben Girma’s parents met in California. Her early childhood was momentarily disrupted after Girma lost her vision and hearing as a result of an unknown medical condition. Growing up in American society, Girma was educated in the Oakland Public Schools where she benefitted from the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The act was a civil rights law that outlawed discrimination against people living with disabilities. As a result, she became accustomed to the special opportunities the law provided. Girma was accessible to a digital Braille technology device that helped her through in her educational journey. The device enabled her to read and absorb information.

Regardless of her blindness and deafness, Girma was privileged to travel to Mali to do volunteer work. She went under the auspice of BuildOn, an Oakland nonprofit organization that ran youth service afterschool programs and built schools in developing countries. In 2010, Girma graduated from Lewis and Clark with a Bachelor of Arts Degree and instantly enrolled in Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was the first deaf and blind student to attend Harvard Law School.

In 2013, Haben Girma made history after becoming the first deafblind student to graduate from the institution. She graduated with a Juris Doctor degree (JD). According to Girma, she became a lawyer to help other persons with disabilities have access to books and digital information. That same year, she joined the Disability Right Advocates (DRA). Girma worked and advocated on behalf of people with disabilities at the time. “Digital information is just ones and zeroes…It can be converted into any kind of format. And those people who develop these services—programmers, and technology designers—have an incredible power to increase access for people with disabilities. And I hope they use it,” she said.

In 2014, she represented Heidi Viens, a blind mother in a lawsuit against Scribd, a digital library that provides e-book and auto-book subscription services for the blind. According to allegations, Scribd failed to give blind readers access to online services, which is an act contrary to the law of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Consequently, a settlement was reached and Scribd agreed to change its practices. Girma was appointed to the national board of trustees for the Helen Keller Service for the Blind in January 2015. Later that year, she was invited by President Barack Obama to a White House Ceremony to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Girma gave introductory remarks during the commemoration.

2016 was a busy and eventful year for Haben Girma. She was actively involved in civil rights workshops, accessibility training, and working with organizations that target persons living with a disability. At the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose, Haben Girma urged developers to remember those with disabilities when they design the next generation of technological gadgets.

Despite her disability, Haben Girma is globally recognized with awards and laurels. In 2013, the Obama administration recognized her as a Champion of Change. Haben Girma was listed in Forbes 30 Under 30, in the Law & Policy category, in 2016. Girma was cited as one of the Top 100 most influential Africans by New African magazine in 2017.

To fulfill most of her daily chores and activities, Girma uses the assistance of a guide dog. For leisure, Hanen Girma enjoys surfing, rock climbing, kayaking, cycling, and dancing.

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