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Haben Girma: A Champion of Disability Inclusion as Part of Diversity

From refugee to Harvard grad: She champions inclusion and dignity for people with disabilities. 

We Are All Able

The word “disability” usually comes with a negative connotation. It seems to deny the fact that there are people of all shapes, sizes, and skills that require judgement-free social services. Today, sadly, it seems that the differences that make our world colorful, unique, and progressive can also be a cause for isolation for many people. But Haben Girma, a deaf-blind Harvard scholar, is living proof that we are all able to complete grand missions no matter our abilities if we have the courage in our hearts and the support of our communities. 

Girma is a public speaker and disability rights advocate with international fame. She aims to have inclusive practices for people with disabilities in every aspect of our daily lives. And she believes that technology can level the playing field. 

She’s a lawyer, activist, and author who has been named a White House Champion of Change by President Barack Obama, spoken at national conferences, and gave a lecture on accessible design at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference. 

White House Photo by Pete Souza

She’s won the Helen Keller Achievement Award, named BBC Hero, and documented her story in her best-selling book, Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law, which has been featured in magazines and journals like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, People, and O, The Oprah Magazine.

While her audiences may change, Girma’s bringing the same message — that business owners, lawmakers, and leaders have an obligation to use technology to foster inclusivity and diversity. 

Not a Textbook Education

Girma grew up in California as the daughter of Eritrean refugees. She was deaf-blind, just like her older brother. Girma’s mother worked very hard to find a school that could cater to her children’s abilities. “My mom could find schools for the deaf and schools for the blind, but to find one school that could teach someone who was deaf-blind was extremely difficult,” Girma said. 

The pursuit of education is one of the reasons Girma’s mother moved to the United States. In America, Girma and her brother benefitted from the Americans with Disabilities Act, which allowed them to utilize technology to make daily activities more accessible — like her schoolwork and even her lunch menu. These technologies and laws were unheard of in Eritrea. With the use of such technology, Girma was able to graduate from one of America’s most prestigious universities — Harvard Law School. You can listen to Girma’s message by watching this brief video…

But, navigating her education with a disability wasn’t always easy. One desire for chocolate cake in her college years turned out to be the impetus to her world-changing views. While attending Lewis & Clark College she started advocating for the school’s menu to be accessible. “I had a really hard time with this,” she said. “I am very familiar with what my parents went through to make sure we had a better life, so I felt kind of silly advocating to see when the cafeteria would have chocolate cake.” 

But her work was not in vain, the school ended up implementing technology that allows people of all abilities to read the lunch menu, helping to make the school more accessible to people who are deaf and blind. 

She graduated from the school as a Magna Cum Laude, before heading to Harvard Law School to earn her Juris Doctor in 2013. With her degree, she used her legal fortitude to help others with varying abilities overcome obstacles in their education, workplace, and daily lives. 

Innovating Spirit 

Girma believes that as our communities become more technologically advanced, more people with disabilities should feel included. She believes that technology can bridge these gaps. For example, Girma developed a special method that allows her to communicate. She uses a wireless keyboard connected to her digital braille device that has a screen reader, allowing a person to type what they want to convey to her. Then, the information is translated through braille pulsations on her fingers. 

For emails and other work materials, she uses a screen reader. Ultimately, she wants to mix her knowledge of law, sociology, and technology to make the world a better, more inclusive place. Aside from being an advocate for disability inclusion, Girma likes to go surfing, kayaking, rock climbing, cycling and dancing, and play with her seeing eye dog, Mylo. 

In Business

In addition to empowering those with disabilities, Girma teaches business owners and employers at large corporations how to cater to those with varying abilities. She explains that an inclusive environment is beneficial for all. 

According to statistics, people with disabilities are the largest minority, reaching around one billion people worldwide, and Girma believes that alienating this population can be detrimental to businesses seeking skilled workers. This message hit home at the 2016 Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference, which she informed an audience of 4,000 developers how important it is to consider deaf, blind, and other disabilities when developing software.

 She explains “inclusion is a choice. It is a conscious decision we make to make the world a better place for all.” For more about Haben Girma, visit her website at habengirma.com.