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First Deaf and Blind Harvard Law Graduate Says Accessibility Isn’t Charity

Author Haben Girma, a lawyer who was born deaf and blind and is an advocate for accessibility. (Courtesy Haben Girma)
Author Haben Girma, a lawyer who was born deaf and blind and is an advocate for accessibility. (Courtesy Haben Girma)

Haben Girma, a lawyer born deaf and blind, has advocated for accessibility from her hometown of Oakland, California, all the way to the White House. Now, she has written a book about her journey.

In a phone interview with VOA, Girma read questions on a braille display after they were typed out by an interpreter. She said her parents, immigrants from Ethiopia and Eritrea, refused to listen to those who said she could not do certain things.

“One of the biggest challenges is people's attitudes. People would say to my parents, ‘Oh, poor thing, she’ll never go to school; she’ll never get a job.’ And that was really hard for my parents to hear. It’s hard for me to hear, too,” she said. “Kids with disabilities want to hear that they’ll be successful. But society often tells us, from very young, that we won’t do anything.”

Girma said she was fortunate to grow up in California’s Bay Area, where disability rights are well-established and numerous resources exist. She went to public schools where braille books, typewriters, assistive software and a special resource room were available. Still, she encountered challenges. In middle school, she discovered she was failing a class because she could not hear assignments the teacher was making from the back of the classroom. Later, at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, she could not read the menu at the school cafeteria because there was no braille version available.

The challenges made her want to make a difference for others. In 2013, Girma became the first deaf and blind student to graduate from Harvard Law School.

“There’s a lot of discrimination against people with disabilities. And I wanted to help change that,” she said. “Getting a law degree, building up your advocacy skills, is a great way to build up the tools to help other people.”

Taking Scribd to court

In 2014, Girma put her legal skills to use. As an attorney with Disability Rights Advocates, she represented the National Federation of the Blind and Heidi Viens in suing Scribd, an online publishing platform and book subscription service, for discrimination because they weren’t making texts accessible to the blind. Girma argued the service wasn’t complying with the law under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against those with disabilities. The company claimed that, because it operates online and doesn’t provide services in a physical space, the ADA laws didn’t apply.

Ultimately, a U.S. district court ruled that the ADA applies to digital services, and online businesses must make their services accessible to all.

“That was a really exciting victory to help blind people get access to more books. I love reading. Books are a powerful way to learn more about our world,” she told VOA. “I want to help make sure more people had books, and also for me. Because when we remove barriers, that also helps those of us with disabilities who are also advocates.”

The following year, Girma was invited to the White House by then-President Barack Obama to celebrate the ADA’s 25th anniversary.

The cover of Haben Girma's book, Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law
The cover of Haben Girma's book, Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law

She has traveled the world, meeting with local disability advocates and sharing her story. This included a trip to Ethiopia in 2015, where she met people pushing for more access to schooling and improvements to the portrayal of deaf and blind people on television and radio. She said she tells organizations and businesses to stop looking at disability access as a charity and start looking at it as an opportunity.

“When you do disability accessibility you're not doing charity. You’re giving powerful work that helps your organization grow. It helps you reach more customers and it drives revenue,” she said. “So I want all organizations including organizations in Africa to stop treating disability as a charity and treat it as an important part of your organization.”

She hopes her book, Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law, helps readers identify what she calls “ableism,” the assumption that disabled people are inferior.

“We are not inferior. But society often sends this message. Through the stories in the book, funny stories, moving stories, I teach people to identify ableism — to spot it when it’s happening, and then to take steps to remove ableism,” she said.

She also hopes to inspire young people who may become the next generation of disability advocates and boundary breakers.

“I wanted kids to have more role models. You can be different. You can have something considered a severe disability and still succeed,” she said.