America makes it hard enough for a black woman to succeed at the same rate and pace as other people, and when you add to the mix being born blind and deaf to African immigrants, it would seem that the odds for success become nearly impossible. But Haben Girma beat those odds and then some to become the first deaf-and-blind graduate of Harvard Law School.
Girma was born in Oakland, Calif., in 1988 to an Ethiopian father and a mother who fled Eritrea in 1983 at the height of the country’s independence war, according to a profile on Face2Face Africa.
Growing up in California, Girma was able to benefit from a U.S. school system that recognizes the rights of people with disabilities, as well as modern technology, including a digital Braille device, which she believes contributed greatly to her success story.
Girma’s older brother, who was born in Eritrea, is also blind and deaf, but he was not able to benefit from access to the opportunities that she was afforded.
In a speech at the White House marking the 25th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 2015, Girma had the following to say:
When my grandmother took my brother to a school in East Africa, they told her that deaf-blind children can’t go to school. There was simply no chance. When my family moved to the U.S. and I was also born deaf-blind, they were amazed by the opportunities afforded by ADA. ... For my grandmother back in Africa, my success seemed like magic. For all of us here, we know that people with disabilities succeed not by magic but through opportunities.
Girma took special Braille classes alongside her regular work in elementary school, and by high school she was already doing volunteer work in Mali, West Africa, building schools with the charity BuildOn.
She did her undergraduate work at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., where she majored in sociology and anthropology and graduated magna cum laude. She then went on to become the first deaf-blind student to attend and graduate from Harvard Law School, earning her J.D. in 2013.
After graduating from law school, Girma worked as an attorney with the California-based disability-civil-rights law firm Disability Rights Advocates, where she says she worked on her first and most memorable case: a lawsuit brought against a company for failing to provide the required access for blind readers. The firm won that case.
Girma said that her work as a disability-rights advocate is extremely rewarding because she is able to influence organizations and corporations to make their content accessible to readers with disabilities.
“I’m working on making the world a better place,” Girma said. “There are many ways for us to do this: teaching organizations that disability can also be a valuable asset, helping increase access to Braille, etc.”
In 2015, Girma was named a White House Champion of Change and was also appointed to the national board of trustees for the Helen Keller Services for the Blind.
In her spare time, Girma likes to salsa-dance, surf, travel, kayak and rock climb.